On International Women’s Day, Sadiq Khan spoke to Marie Claire’s Tracy Ramsden about why the future is female
‘I don’t want my daughters to grow up thinking there’s a single career they can’t do,’ Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London told Marie Claire after hosting a celebration of female founders at City Hall today to mark International Women’s Day.
‘We’ve had a Met police service for 188 years and only a third of our police officers are women. But finally we now have a head of the police service – the best candidate for the job, by the way – who is a woman. The fire brigade, we’ve had for 150 years and for the first time ever we have a woman at the top. A new generation will think, if she did, so can I.’
Sadiq Khan was talking after co-hosting an event to celebrate outstanding female founders alongside All Bright, a funding initiative to support the UK’s best female-led businesses. ‘Look at the numbers – two thirds of women can’t see a role model in their field,’ Khan added. ‘As an ethnic minority, I couldn’t see many people who looked like me in politics when I started out and for young girls it’s been the same.’
The large space at City Hall, overlooking the Thames, was packed with dynamic, talented female founders from finance to tech, so it’s certainly not ideas and tenacity that women are lacking. It’s support to get things off the ground. So what’s the plan of action?
‘There needs to be no stigma around part-time flexible working, more mentoring, looking at the issue of gender blind applications, giving people grants and bursaries to take career breaks if need be,’ said Khan. ‘In the workplace there should be economically active women and we’ve got to recognise that it’s not unreasonable for women to want to have children and for them to be able to balance their work around this. There’s a social and moral case for this, but also an economic one.’
Outlining the ways that attitudes of society and employers need to shift, Khan suggested that working from home, flexible working and access to dedicated workspaces to enable cross fertilisation across businesses are essential. ‘At City Hall we’re looking at how we can use planning and work with developers to create subsidised workspaces,’ he said. And what does he make of the women-only workspaces that are popping up in cities around the world and across London?
‘One of my concerns in the fight for gender equality is this assumption that it’s only a women’s fight. That’s why I think it’s important for us to share your experiences to understand the challenges so we can help others reach their potential,’ said Khan. He added that women-only spaces wouldn’t be something for City Hall to initiate. ‘It’s a decision for entrepreneurs, and for those who are in charge of the workspaces, to make based upon how they can help women to reach their full potential.’
What he does intend to do is to work closely with his newly formed business advisory board. ‘Ten out of the 16 on my board are women because I wanted the most talented business people in London. What’s important is to listen to their advice and respond,’ he added.
Khan also acknowledged the increasing hostilities faced by women around the world in the current political climate. ‘My fear is the rise of populist movements and world leaders saying things that many of us find abhorrent, the progress we’ve made could be lost. We are at a cross roads because until now we have inched forwards slowly but for the first time in my adult lifetime we are in danger of progress being reversed. If you’re a woman who puts her head above the parapet on social media you get threats. But thankfully, a lot of people get it, whatever gender you are. One of my role models is Justin Trudeau – when he was asked why he made half of his cabinet women he said: ‘Because it’s 2015’ Last year, I made more than half my deputy mayors women.’
Will we always need International Women’s Day? ‘I’m afraid for the foreseeable future we need International Women’s Day to get gender equality. And when we have that, I think we should still have International Women’s Day to celebrate the progress and ensure we never become complacent. There’s a great saying from the Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai: How can all of us succeed if half of us are being held back?’