At Salesforce, we believe our higher purpose is to drive the Age of Equality and, while on this path, it’s important to recognize and learn from trailblazers who have dedicated their lives to creating a more equal world. Cherie Blair, who is speaking in our upcoming Fortune CEO Series, exemplifies a visionary and leader who is actively furthering positive social change.
Cherie Blair is a leading lawyer and committed campaigner for women’s rights. In 2008, she set up the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women to help women build small and growing business in developing and emerging markets. The foundation is committed to helping women contribute to their economies and have a stronger voice in their societies. I had the opportunity to sit down with Cherie and learn more about her work both professionally and personally on the path towards Equality for All. Here’s the conversation:
There is one fundamental value that has guided my life and career — the belief that everyone has the right to participate equally in their societies and communities. Over the years I have fought for this in my career as a human rights barrister.
I have a particular passion for women’s rights, which is what inspired me to set up a Foundation to support women entrepreneurs in developing and emerging economies. I think this passion comes from the way I was raised —by my mother and my grandmother, both incredibly strong women. My father had left us when I was in primary school, and I quickly learned about the importance of being self-sufficient. Both my mother and grandmother had to leave school at 14 but, because of that, they were determined that my sister and I would have a better start in life. We were encouraged to make the most of our education and, importantly, to believe in ourselves.
That’s the underlying ethos of my Foundation. All too often women are told they can't. We tell them they can.
To a woman entrepreneur who is living in an isolated area, facing resistance from family members, or negotiating challenging circumstances, having the support of a mentor can be nothing less than life-changing. Our Mentoring Women in Business Programme uses technology to connect women in developing countries with mentors from across the world. Using online tools to communicate over the course of a year, our mentees work closely with their mentor to achieve specific business goals. The mentors themselves also get a huge amount out of building strong connections with the women they’re working with, and being able to contribute so positively to someone’s life.
I think the three things business leaders can do to address gender equality in the workplace are:
1. Lead from the top – make sure your leaders are vocal and visible on the issue of gender equality, and ensure that you are proactive in recruiting a diverse board which includes women and other under-represented minorities.
2. Tackle the gender pay gap – new laws in the UK will force companies employing more than 250 people to reveal data on their pay disparities. Identifying inequalities is just the first step though – companies must then take firm action to eliminate discrimination and ensure that all employees receive the same opportunities for fair pay and career progression.
3. Implement policies that enable and encourage men to take up parental leave and support women to return to work without suffering from the so-called ‘motherhood penalty.’
Issues relating to economic inequality between men and women affect every country in the world – so it’s crucial that business leaders in both developed and developing economies take action on gender equality.
It’s encouraging to see companies like Salesforce confronting pay inequality within its own workforce and speaking out about the need for diversity in tech, but we need more leaders to follow this example if we are to create a future in which women can truly thrive.
Technology has progressed at a rapid rate in recent decades, but it’s clear that not everyone has been able to benefit from what the World Bank calls the ‘digital dividends’ of this revolution. Access to technology is still plagued by inequality. For instance, while recent figures show that 8 out of 10 people in the developing world own a mobile phone, only around 31% of the population in developing countries have access to the internet, compared to 80% in high income countries.
Women are, of course, disproportionately affected by the digital divide. Women in low and middle income countries are 14% less likely to own a mobile phone than men, which translates into 200 million fewer women than men owning mobile phones. Despite this, I truly believe that technology holds huge promise for women’s empowerment. It opens doors to learning opportunities, new networks and employment prospects.
I believe very strongly that the tech industry has an important role to play in creating a more inclusive and connected global society. And business leaders shouldn’t just think of this as a ‘nice-to-have’ or a box-ticking exercise in CSR. Research shows that increasing internet connectivity and accessibility in developing countries could lead to a $21 return on investment for every dollar spent. It’s important for business leaders to understand technological needs in a given context, creating products and services with a key focus on accessibility for all.
We learned very quickly that technology is a great enabler for women, so it’s a cornerstone of the Foundation’s work - whether that’s using the internet to connect a woman with a life-changing mentor on the other side of the world; delivering training on financial literacy via a digital platform; or creating mobile apps to help women manage their sales at the touch of a button.
We can take inspiration from Shantaben for example - one of the women who took part in one of our mobile projects. Shantaben lives in rural India and works as a saleswoman for an agricultural cooperative. With the support of a special app which we developed in partnership with the Vodafone Foundation in India, she is able to place orders and track her inventory quickly and easily via her mobile phone, instead of spending up to seven hours a day travelling to order new stock at a processing centre. After using the app, Shantaben’s sales increased threefold, and she’s been able to invest her extra income into a savings account and contribute to her grandson’s school fees.
We’re also working in partnership with the ExxonMobil Foundation to develop a project which will deliver business and financial literacy training to 500 Mexican women through a combination of classroom teaching and online modules. We ran the same project in Nigeria last year and found that the women there really valued this style of ‘blended learning’ – which means that women can access the online training tool at their own pace and convenience, but also benefit from valuable face-to-face time with teachers and peers.
I firmly go by the saying ‘be the change you wish to see in the world’. Business leaders benefit from having unique platforms and positions of influence, and I believe that using these tools to create positive social change is not just important – it is imperative. We have a responsibility to give back.
The truth is that we cannot even begin to tackle the world’s most intractable problems – whether it be climate change, poverty or gender inequality – without the support and leadership of the private sector. My Foundation is proof of this. We have supported over 140,000 women in more than 100 countries to date – there is no way we would have been able to touch so many lives without the support of our private sector partners, who provide funding and expertise, and our local partners, who help implement our projects.
Business leaders are in a unique position to drive social change – they can leverage the capital, technology and infrastructure needed to improve people’s lives on a huge scale. And, increasingly, they are realising that this is what their customers, employees and investors expect of them. We are living in an age of ‘conscious consumerism’ – business leaders must respond to growing demands for ethical practices in everything from workers’ rights and pay equality to supply chain diversity and environmental protection. Doing so will ultimately drive growth and trust in their brand, as well as change societies and economies for the better.
To find out more about the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women please visit www.cherieblairfoundation.org.