Cherie Booth QC, 20 October 2013
Thirty years after she became pregnant with her first child, the barrister argues that society must do more to enable mothers to play a full role at home and in the workplace.
Life has changed beyond recognition for families over the last 30 years. One of the places of greatest change has been the workplace. Thirty years ago, little more than half of women worked; now 80% of women return to work after having a baby. More than 70% of women and men use at least one form of flexible working, and in 25% of families mums and dads share the childcare equally.
Looking back at my own life over the last 30 years, I can see that my experiences in 1983 were relatively untypical: I was a woman in a predominantly male profession. In the February I had a big break in my legal career, when I appeared for the first time as a junior in a case for a trade union in the House of Lords. Then in May 1983 I stood unsuccessfully in the general election as the Labour candidate for the safe Tory seat of Thanet North in Kent. But in the July I discovered I was pregnant with our first child, who was born in January 1984. After that, nothing was the same again.
As my pregnancy became more visible, I noticed a perceptible change in the attitude towards me of my colleagues, who were all men. I was by nature a stubborn "Scouser" and was determined to prove I could have both a career and a family life. My mother, who gave up her career as an actress to look after my sister and me, was abandoned by her husband and, with no maintenance forthcoming, took a job in a fish and chip shop to support us. This experience, as well as my professional ambition, instilled in me a strong feeling that maintaining a career and a family life was both desirable and necessary.
In some ways I was lucky. The fact that barristers are self-employed meant that I was able to "marinate" rather than grow my practice while my older children were very young, and it did not ultimately hold me back from having a successful legal career. This was a sacrifice I was prepared to make to have a family, but for other women of my generation the story was very different and many look enviously at the opportunities afforded to the generation that followed.
Changes over the last 30 years, including increasing availability of childcare, have undoubtedly made it easier for parents to juggle work and family life, with a significant rise in the number of mothers in the workforce. Yet cultural assumptions about the roles of men and women in business and social arrangements have not caught up. Does it matter that, 30 years on, progress has been so slow? I believe the answer is a resounding yes. Failing to remove the barriers that help us make the most of everyone's talents and potential is remarkably short-sighted for both societies and companies. After all, women, who make up half the talent pool, are, as exam results show, demonstrably the smarter half! This is not just about numbers but also about the qualities that women can bring to decision-making. As Harriet Harman, the longstanding champion of these issues, has pointed out, the recklessness that helped spark the global economic crisis might have been prevented with more women at the top of our banks.
In her book, Lean In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg advocates that women be prepared to move up a gear, be more confident and take chances in their career, something I did myself after the birth of my third (and what I thought was to be my last) child, by taking the then rare step and moving to a bigger barristers' chambers, and later still forming my own chambers, Matrix. But changing our society so our workplaces are truly open to the talents and life choices of women, and indeed people of all backgrounds, needs real leadership and effort.
Certainly the culture of work needs to change. Lady Thatcher was lauded for her ability to work 18 hours a day. Compare this with the criticism Nick Clegg received from some commentators when he revealed last year that he sometimes takes his children to school and is therefore not at his desk at the crack of dawn every day. Indeed in a world of the BlackBerry, remote access and Wi-Fi hotspots on every street corner, it feels particularly outdated that much of our working culture is still dominated by the need to be at our desk for long hours of the day.
And let us be honest, it is difficult not to think "I survived the relentless long-hours culture and it didn't do me any harm". I was so intent as a young lawyer on beating the men at their own game that I didn't take any real maternity leave with my three younger children. It is only looking back that I realise I wasn't beating the system but reinforcing it. Many of the big decisions over progression, promotion and future career trajectory are taken when people are in their late twenties and thirties, putting women at a huge disadvantage because this is the very time they are most likely to be having a break to have children.
That said, the changes in maternity and paternity leave and the growth in availability of flexible working and childcare were all responses to these changes and are now part of the architecture of our daily lives. As we look forward to the next 30 years, we need to see some equally big changes, not just in structures or laws but in attitudes, practices and approaches. Here are some practical suggestions for reforms that I believe are achievable and won't cost the earth.
First is the idea of mentoring programmes: the positive impact that mentors can have on female entrepreneurs is something I have seen first- hand from the work of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women that I launched some years ago. The foundation brings together mentors and would-be entrepreneurs across the world via the internet with the aim of giving more women the chance to run a successful business, and with a regular income improve their family's quality of life as well as contribute to the development of their country's economy. Mentees report improving confidence and most importantly real business success. It may not be a new or radical idea but more women could really benefit from having someone to bounce ideas off, discuss problems with and to encourage them to be ambitious and confident.
Second, helping families, especially mothers, back on the "ramp" into employment after having a baby or a stay at home period has to be a priority. We should be learning from companies that have been blazing a trail on this agenda for years, like KPMG. One solution could be a "returnership", which would be like an apprenticeship but for those who have been out of the labour market due to caring responsibilities. The businesses that get these measures right - in a world in which human capital matters more and more - will win the battle for talent.
Third, we need to think about what we can do to support parents who want to prioritise full-time caring for a period when their children are young. One measure government might consider is whether families with single earners, who will not be eligible for the new tax-free childcare offer, might be able to "store up" their entitlement for up to three years to use when the second earner reenters the labour market.
Finally, we need a long-term vision for achieving universal childcare provision for all parents. But before then we all need to do more as individuals, as employers and as a community to make space for people to make these choices and rejoice in diversity in family life as we all struggle, not to have it all at once, but to have it all spread across a working life of 40 or 50 years.