Juni Solbraekke LLM ’22 said:
“Each year, Senior Adjunct Professor of Global Leadership and Associate Dean of International Affairs Rangita de Silva de Alwis invites one extraordinary leader who personifies the values of her seminar ‘Women, Law, and Leadership’ to speak to the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School class. On November 23, 2021, she hosted Cherie Blair, Commander of the British Empire and Queens Counsel and wife of Tony Blair, former Prime Minister of Great Britain.”
Identifying and breaking stereotypes
Blair has been at the forefront of “identifying and breaking stereotypes” for women, said de Silva de Alwis in her introductory remarks, including the stereotype on how a First Lady is expected to behave. De Silva de Alwis stated that upon entry to 10 Downing Street, Blair famously stated that she was not ready to worry about what she was going to wear because that did not matter to her.
“What matters to me is helping other women find their voices,” Blair said. “We must change the assumptions about the role of women in societies, change the paradigm of parenting and change the paradigm of work, life, balance,” she said.
Blair then outlined the work of her Foundation, the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, which works with “challenging stereotypes holding women entrepreneurs back from success and equality.”
Their recent survey of women entrepreneurs in low- and middle-income countries shows that gender stereotypes are still an imminent threat to women’s advancement. Ninety-six percent of the surveyed businesswomen had encountered gender stereotypes. Over 50 percent surveyed answered that the most apparent stereotype they faced was the concern from family and friends that they, as businesswomen, were neglecting their main responsibility as caregivers for their families.
What equality means in practice
Blair told the law students in the class that many female students do not realize the obstacles to their career advancement before they join the workforce but begin to do so notably after around five years in. The assumptions about women act as barriers to their success, Blair commented.
In her view, exceptional women, as well as exceptional men, will often be able to rise to the top of their career. However, the real problem lies with the average women. True equality will only truly be achieved when “just good enough” women have the same chance to succeed as “just good enough” men. To be able to achieve this goal, men must let go of their male entitlement and the default belief that men are more qualified to do high achiever jobs than women simply because they are men.
Hold women accountable for what they are doing – not what they are wearing
Upon a question from Abby Keyes L’22, Blair outlined how the media treats women in public positions differently from men in similar positions. In her opinion, women are scrutinized in the media not for what they are doing but based on what they are wearing or how they look.
One possible explanation for the focus on looks instead of actions might be that if the media actually focused on a woman’s actions, they would be legitimized as part of her role. By focusing instead on her appearance and clothing, the media’s coverage is more in line with society’s expectations that women should not assume roles of power but rather be family caregivers. Blair underlined that she would rather be held accountable for what she is “doing” rather than for what she is “wearing.”
Call to action for all women – and men
“Each one of us can and should change the world for the better – one woman at the time”, said Blair, urging law students to aim to improve the roles of women around the world through their work.
At the same time, Blair underlined, women’s advancement is also dependent on men in power in men-dominated sectors speaking up on women’s behalf.
Written by Juni Solbraekke LLM ’22