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Cherie Blair on Lehman Sisters and life at No 10

Liz Bolshaw, Financial Times, 6 July 2011

Cherie Blair is a barrister, judge and campaigner for equality and human rights. In 2008, she set up the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, which runs programmes in Africa, south Asia and the Middle East to help women start and expand businesses. She is married to Tony Blair, the former UK prime minister.

Why has equality for women been a passionate cause for you, not just since you established the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, but also throughout your life?

We are shaped by our backgrounds. I was brought up by two very strong women - my mother and my grandmother. My grandmother was a great character in the local community, and in her family she was the matriarch. She was a working-class woman, left school at 14 and was a great reader, but she wasn't educated herself. When my grandfather was ill, she had to go out to work as a cleaner because that's all she could do.

My mother was an intelligent woman and was doing well at school [but] when her own mother died at 14, she had to give up her education.

When my mum wanted to get a mortgage after her husband had moved out, no bank would lend to her because she didn't have a man to be co-signatory to the account.

What made you think you could break free from this pattern?

It was the two of them. I almost think I must have been the boy in our household because my mother and my grandmother didn't make me do the cooking and the washing. They allowed me to concentrate on my studies.

Were you very academic at school?

It's difficult to tell, [but] at the age of eight I was fast-tracked and put up a year at school.

In 1976, I came top of the Bar finals [to qualify as a barrister in the UK] and I went to try to find a pupillage. However, people still said, 'We don't take girls,' or 'We've got one girl. We can't take any more.' At that time I didn't tell them that this was absolutely outrageous or point out that we had just passed the Sex Discrimination Act. I just thought I'll find somewhere else - and of course I did. But that was the culture of the time. It's not enough to change the law; you have to have a cultural change.

Do you think women can provide the brakes in high-risk enterprises - for example, that if we'd had Lehman Sisters, we might have avoided financial meltdown?

I love that example of Lehman Sisters.

I don't actually think every woman or every man is the same. But it would be foolish to ignore the fact that, in general, women tend to be more inclusive managers. They tend to like to make people feel valued and heard, and they are less [likely to be] risk takers than men. There is a time and place when you have to take risk, but there's also a time and place when you need to hold back. The problem is if you don't have a balance between the two, then you do get a Lehman Brothers situation.

Are you a fan of quotas?

It depends for what. When the Davies Report [on women in the boardroom] came out, I looked at it carefully and thought it was realistic: research shows you need about 30 per cent to make a difference.

Will voluntary pressure work?

I don't know whether it will work, but if at the end of three years it's not working, at least you can say we tried.

You were the first wife of a British prime minister to have an independent career before you arrived at No 10. How important to you was that?

Very important. I was the first wife of a British prime minister to have a university degree - in fact, I was the first spouse because Denis [Thatcher] didn't have one. It's not surprising because they were all of a different generation.

By the time my husband became leader of the Labour party, and then prime minister, I'd spent a lot of time building up my own career, and the idea that I would just give that up certainly didn't cross his mind. To be honest, it never crossed mine either.

Why did you decide to focus on helping women start businesses beyond the microfinancing level? What was behind that focus?

It comes from because the fact that as Cherie Booth QC [senior lawyer] I am a small business.

I've seen too many women across the world answerable to their fathers, brothers or husbands, because they don't have the wherewithal to support themselves. It seems to me absolutely vital that we help women gain economic independence because you never know when you might need to support yourself and your children.

Is there one thing you would like to have changed in the course of your career?

I feel I have been so lucky. In my 50s, I have become freer, partly because my husband is no longer prime minister, therefore I can speak up about these things. But I am also more impatient because the situation hasn't changed enough for other women across the world.

View the article on the FT website