Wearing a dark navy blue dress and glittering neckpiece, her speech kicking off this year’s theme of ‘Sustainable Growth in a Fractured World’ was essentially a war cry to everyone gathered, woman or man, politician or businessman, lender or entrepreneur, to make it easier for women ‘to access capital’.
The 65-year-old Blair is more than familiar with India – ‘I almost qualify as an NRI,’ she quipped in her second time as a speaker at ETGBS – and also how important India figures in the global challenge of closing the gap on gender inequity. Quoting World Economic Forum (WEF) data, she underlined how bad things still were: it would take an estimated 276 years for the gender gap to close.
“In fact, what is shocking is that since the last time I was here at the Economic Times summit in 2008, the gap has widened by an astounding 55 years. This means that neither my three-year-old grand-daughter nor her daughter will probably get to see true gender equality in her time.”
Blair told the packed audience that she personally knew the trauma of women not being financially independent. When she was eight, growing up in working class Liverpool, her father left her mother, her sister and her. This left a lasting impression on the future founding member of Matrix Chambers, a legal collective specialising in human rights law, and founder-evangelist of Cherie Blair Foundation for Women.
“This is not about pity, but about support,” said Blair, knowing fully well through her foundation work the value of ‘arming’ women with skills, networks, technology an access to capital. This also means, she reminded, being ‘part of the solution’ that includes breaking down stereotypes that include women allegedly not being naturally inclined to business and entrepreneurship because ‘they prioritise motherhood and parenting, or that they are not assertive enough, or they aren’t ambitious enough’. A small proof of that pudding is Blair’s foundation alone helping and propping up some 16,000 female entrepreneurs.
But, perhaps, the most powerful and effective incentive to seek gender parity Blair mentioned is the yet hardly tapped opportunity that greater women’s participation in the labour force provides for companies, countries and, indeed, the world. Quoting International Labour Organisation (ILO) figures that estimate a $5 trillion rise to global GDP if the gender gap is closed, Blair reminded everyone that empowering women through capital – through gender-sensitive capitalism – makes supreme business sense.
Focusing on India, Blair hammered home the news once again that this country has one of the lowest rate of women’s participation in the labour force in the world – 23.3%, according to 2017-18 World Bank data making it ahead of only nine countries: Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Algeria, Iran, Somalia, Morocco, Egypt (and behind Paksitan’s 24.8%). This Blair clearly blames systemic barriers. ‘Yes, 53% of undergraduates are female students. But 65% of women undergraduates do not have jobs. Precious opportunity – and human capital – is, according to Blair, “being overlooked and unutilised”.
For a person, a woman who personally has known the value of being financially independent, her words calling to action everyone – “more than words, we need tangible action” – to close the ‘fracture’ of the gender gap “beyond your family, beyond your social groups” makes compelling business sense.