‘The old boys’ network is still firmly in place,’ says Cherie Blair as ultimate goal of female parity in the workplace remains elusive

That is why the barrister backs a plan to help women in male dominated jobs find female mentors, she tells Susie Mesure

Cherie Blair’s grandmother might not have worked but she still inspired her young granddaughter’s eventual choice of career. Even today, Ms Blair cites the tales Vera Booth brought back from a day spent at Liverpool Crown Court watching star barrister Rose Heilbron in action as the reason she entered the legal profession.

Dame Rose, who died seven years ago, was the first woman in Britain to become a KC (as a Queen’s Counsel was known in 1949 under George VI). Not only that, but like Cherie she was also a Liverpudlian.

“My grandmother was a great admirer of Rose and used to go and watch her in action and come home full of it. That had a big influence on me, and I worked hard because I hoped that one day I could be a Queen’s Counsel like Rose Heilbron,” Ms Blair, who is known professionally as Cherie Booth, told The Independent.

“She stood out because she was a woman, but also because she was an attractive woman. She had also married and had a child which was unheard of and she came from Liverpool. I thought, ‘If one girl from Liverpool can make it in this world then this one can too’.”

Although Ms Blair went on to appear in front of her idol when Dame Rose sat as a judge in the family division she had to look elsewhere when it came to finding somebody to mentor her young self. With so few women in the profession, those somebodies were all men, which explains why Ms Blair has thrown her influence behind projects that support mentoring.

Her own foundation focuses on helping women in developing countries find virtual mentors – of both sexes – around the world. But this week she threw her backing behind a British-based alternative. VW Connects, set up by Barbara Kasumu, is a social network and e-mentoring platform that wants to help young women find female mentors in male-dominated industries.

Speaking ahead of the VW Connects launch, Ms Blair warned that anyone “outside the mainstream can find themselves excluded”, adding: “The old boys’ club is still firmly in place, I’m afraid. It may no longer revolve around gin or the golf club, and it’s certainly far less formal and to be fair, often unconscious. But networking remains as important as ever.”

She commended The Independent’s sister newspaper i for its “wonderful” Back to School Campaign to help encourage former state school pupils to create their own alumni networks. “Role models are important from very early days onwards. Not every child is aware of what is out there, so it’s up to us to step in and offer some inspiration.”

Ms Blair hopes that these initiatives will help to achieve her ultimate goal: female parity in the workplace and beyond. “Before I die I’m determined that we will achieve equality for women in the 21st century, but we have not achieved it yet. There is no country in the world where women have equal opportunities to men but obviously some do better than others.”

She cited some of the challenges women still face, including struggling to revive their careers after having children. She urged companies not to penalise mothers who opted to return to work on a part-time basis.

“Flexible working is really important but it’s really important that firms don’t look on this as ‘the mummy track’, ie for those who are not going to make it. They need to acknowledge that part-time workers can make a real contribution.”

Ms Blair, who has four children, aged 29 to 13, continued to work rather than stay at home – much to the disgust of some observers. On Thursday night, at the VW Connects launch, she risked further controversy by weighing in to the unresolved debate over the choices that women make.

Despite knowing that there is little that riles so-called stay-at-home mums more than being told that what they are doing doesn’t count as work, Ms Blair spoke bluntly: “Don’t say being a mother is the most important job to do because being a mother isn’t a job. It’s a relationship. The quality of the relationship is what matters . The most important thing is the relationship we have with our children.”

She said her own mother, who like her grandmother had left school at 14, “had no choice but to work”; her father, the actor Tony Booth, had left his family when Cherie was eight. “My mum worked in a fish-and-chip shop, then a travel agent’s... I never thought that in doing that she was choosing something before me. It was very much that she was doing that precisely for me, so in fact it made it easier for me when I was working.”

The knock-on guilt was inevitable, Ms Blair added, but possibly self-inflicted. “I think women sometimes like to feel guilty. We should stop beating ourselves up.”

This doesn’t mean abandoning realism, however. “We need to be realistic. I agree with [Facebook’s chief executive] Sheryl Sandberg when she says we should ‘lean in’ but it’s difficult to do that when there’s no one there to support you.”

She said that without support she would have struggled to make it. “I was very lucky. I was adopted as a young barrister by a couple of senior colleagues who saw something in the bolshie young Scouser in front of them.

“They not only found time to offer me advice, they positively encouraged clients to push work my way. Without their support, I would have found it much more difficult, maybe impossible, to have got where I have.”

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