Cherie Blair: Why are company boards today "pale, male and stale"?

The campaigner of women's rights and founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women calls on companies to step up their involvement of women in business, saying it is good for both profits and sustainability.

Cherie Blair at the BNP Paribas Sustainable Future Forum 2016
Speaking at the inaugural BNP Paribas Sustainable Future Forum, campaigner for women’s education and equality Cherie Blair said women inclusion is important for good business decision-making and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. Image: BNP Paribas

Pale, male and stale – this was how prominent campaigner for women’s education and equality Cherie Blair described the majority of company boards today.

And despite the fact that women drive 70 to 80 per cent of global consumer spending, just eight per cent of CEOs in companies worldwide are women.

This has to change, as women inclusion is important not only for good business decision-making, but also to achieve the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted last year, said the founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women.

The SDGs are a set of 17 development goals set out by the United Nations which aim to end poverty, protect the environment, and achieve inclusive economic growth for all.

Addressing a 200-strong audience at the inaugural BNP Paribas Sustainable Future Forum last Thursday in Singapore, Blair also expressed concern that a recently published report by the World Economic Forum found that men and women may not reach economic equality for another 170 years.

The Swiss non-profit noted in its annual gender gap index that efforts to close gender gaps in pay and workforce participation had slowed dramatically in the past year.

Despite the fact that women drive 70 to 80 per cent of global consumer spending, just eight per cent of CEOs in companies worldwide are women.

Society needs to do more to include women, said Blair, who is also married to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

“Every time a woman breaks a glass ceiling, it gives hope to other women and girls and gives them inspiration,” she added.

Blair shared how software giant Symantec has committed to increasing the number of women in leadership and technical positions, including raising the representation of women on the Board of Directors to a minimum of 30 per cent.

It did so by removing barriers such as prior public board experience and expanding its search for female candidates with international, governmental and financial expertise and who could bring both age and cultural diversity to the team.

More companies need to make such efforts, said Blair. Also touching on the SDGs, she noted that the targets were “incredibly ambitious” and required private sector participation to succeed.

For companies looking to align their business models to the SDGs, she advised they focus on two things – strategy and partnerships.

Projects by her foundation are built around partnerships, she said. One example is the Mentoring Women in Business Programme in Malaysia which works with Qualcomm to provide women with Internet access and to link them with mentors via the Internet.

“You have to focus on the issue that makes sense to your business…then map out how you’re going to do that,” she told the audience.

Held at ParkRoyal on Pickering, the forum convened businesses, institutions and development experts to discuss and debate the opportunities and challenges arising from the US$5 trillion to US$7 trillion required to fund the SDGs.

Topics discussed included how the SDGs can be used to unlock shareholder value; the role of private sector capital in financing sustainable economic development; and the evolution of green finance.

BNP Paribas’ chief executive officer for Asia Pacific, Eric Raynaud, noted that with China’s clear signalling at September’s G20 meeting in Hangzhou that green finance will play an increasing role in its funding mix, “we see Asia as poised for a major evolution in how companies and financial institutions look at sustainability”.

“These issues have moved well beyond Corporate Social Responsibility departments and our clients are now looking at how they can align business purpose around a more long-term approach, for long-term profitability,” he added.

The bank is also among the key partners involved in a new initiative called the Tropical Landscapes Finance Facility, launched in Indonesia last week. Consisting of a loan fund and a grant fund, the facility will help Indonesia promote economic development while contributing to hitting its climate targets under the Paris Agreement. 

Other speakers at the Sustainable Future Forum included Dr Yannick Glemarec, assistant secretary general, deputy executive director, Policy & Programme for UN Women, who said he believed “women empowerment is a fundamental human right”.

“If we drive women empowerment, we can drive sustainable development and solve climate change,” he said.

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