Barbara Woodward – 2016 Speech on Inspiring Women


Below is the text of the speech made by Barbara Woodward, the British Ambassador to China, in China on 2 April 2016.

I want to start by thanking Yang Lan not just for convening this forum today, but also for all the inspiring work she and Her Village do to inspire us all and bring out the best in us day after day.

Being able to share experiences and support is critical to all our success. Zhang Xin, another wonderful speaker who will be talking the floor later today, reminded us all of that in her inspiring remarks in Davos earlier this year when she referred to the importance of support groups.

We have just heard from Kevin Rudd about Advancing the Rights Interests and Role of Women Around the World. Since the Beijing UN Conference on Women, there have been important strides. President Xi Jinping’s commitment at UN GA last year reemphasised China’s commitment to this agenda.

I have to pay tribute to Australia and China. As many of you know, I am the first female Ambassador to China. Of course, we are behind China already as State Councillor Mme Fu Ying was the first female Chinese Ambassador to London. And of course I am embarrassed to say that we are behind Australia too in this respect, as Australia has just sent their second female Ambassador to China.

No matter. We have at least made some progress. I was very amused last month to hear this anecdote about Lord Killearn. He was a former British Ambassador in Cairo and earlier in his career, he was an official, a 1st Secretary in Peking. In 1933, he’s reported to have said, when he confronted with the possibility of a future with a female ambassador to China, this would be ‘’unsuitable and highly inadvisable’’!

Well, if I hadn’t already been Ambassador, I would have been inspired right out there to go out and do the job and prove him wrong!

And that’s what so many great women have done. Prove people wrong and challenge stereotypes.

We are all familiar with Nobel prize winner Malala Yousafzai who refused to accept that girls could not have an education. She – and her classmates – went to school, day in day out. She wrote about her experience. Then one day in 2012 she was shot by a gunman on her way to school. She made a miraculous recovery- and I pay tribute to medical professionals in Pakistan and the UK. She has continued not only to pursue her own education, but also to press the right of all children to education. The youngest ever winner of a Nobel peace prize in 2014 and one whose work continues to inspire us today.

Progress/the remaining challenge

We are currently living under a record-high number of simultaneous female world leaders. The UK’s own Queen Elizabeth, who visited China in 1986, 30 years ago, and who celebrates her 90th Birthday this year is one. But that’s still only 20 or so out of more than 200. That’s 10%! But who knows if the next US President or the next UN Secretary General might be a woman?

There are more women leading business. Our host today, Yang Lan, and many wonderful colleagues joining us are included in that number. In the UK, all FTSE 100 companies have at least one female board member and last year 33% of appointments were to women. But around the world somewhere between 8 and 15% of top executive jobs in business are held by women.

Between 1901-1920, 4 women won Nobel prizes. Between 2001-2015, 19 women won prizes, including Chinese scientist Tu Youyou last year. That’s progress! But let’s bear in mind that in the whole history of Nobel prizes, 822 have been won by men and only 48 by women: that’s quite an imbalance!

In sport, at the London Olympics in 2012, for the first time, women competed in as many sports as men, and every team sent at least one female athlete. That’s not equality, but it’s progress.

That’s for leaders. What about the rest of us? Well, there’s still scope for progress.

There is still not a single country in the world where women have equal economic and political power to men.

What does that mean? Let me give two concrete examples.

First: although women in sub Saharan Africa manage 80% of the farmland, they access only 10% of the credit available for smallholders.

Second: The recent World Economic Forum Report (Nov 2015) suggests it will take another 118 years to achieve pay equality between men and women. That means even those girls born today may still not achieve equal pay before they die, even if they live to a ripe old age.

But by narrowing the gender gap in work, as much as $12 trillion could be added to annual global GDP in 2025. Adding another economy the size of China’s must be something worth us all pursuing. And if China were to succeed in breaking down gender stereotypes and unleashing women’s economic potential, $2.5 trillion could be added to China’s own annual GDP . That’s a prize worth having for men and women.

So what are we going to do about it?!

The good news is that we all hold the power to accelerate change.

Today I want to introduce three ways to accelerate change.

Government and company policy

First, Obviously governments and companies have a critical role to play. Equality is enshrined in China’s constitution. In the UK, women won the vote in 1918. In the 1970s the UK passed key legislation on equal pay and on sexual discrimination.

But it takes time to implement legislation and catch up. It requires each organisation to have policies to make these laws work in practice. In my own organisation, the UK Foreign Ministry, now 35% of the FCO Board are women. More than 20% of Ambassadors and Heads of Mission are women. This number will continue to rise.

Because we encourage flexible and remote working.

Because we have career breaks and unpaid leave for up to 10 years.

Because we have a nursery in the FCO where staff can leave their children while they work.

Because we check every job advertisement to make sure it does not put women off.

Because we have committed to having a woman on the shortlist for all senior jobs.

Because we are committed to mentoring and coaching to develop women’s talents.

Because we insist on diverse interview panels (not just men conducting the interviews).

But it takes more than that….

So, second let me talk a bit about

Peer support.

Following your dream, building your career, facing the challenges as knowing how and when to seize the opportunities involve tough choices. Since I came to China, I’ve been the very lucky beneficiary of support from a group of talented and supportive women.

I have also met inspired and motivated members of Lean In Groups followers of Sheryl Sandberg’s seminal advice.

Last month, the British Embassy in China organised a month long campaign “Be Yourself”. The aim of our campaign was empowering women to fulfil their potential, to break down barriers and be themselves.

By the end of the month, our energetic, talented and committed staff had organised more than 20 events in 7 cities in China, including in Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan Chongqing and Guangzhou.

Over 1500 people had participated directly.

Over 4m had participated on line.

That was our small contribution last month to inspiring and empowering women through peer learning and mutual support.

Third, we need to smooth the path of the next generation- of boys and girls.

We all know the value of education. I was very struck by what the First Lady, Madam Peng Liyuan said last autumn in New York, to mark the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Women’s conference.

After generations of hard work, China has come a long way in education. I myself am a beneficiary of that progress. Otherwise I would never have become a soprano and a professor of music.

I myself started my work in China as an English teacher. I am passionate about education. I’m delighted that the UK is renowned as a world leader in education and that students from around the world, including 150,000 from China, many the beneficiaries of scholarships without which that study would not be possible, come to study in the UK.

Why? Because education, for boys and girls is a route to opportunity, to realising dreams, and ultimately to the security of society. Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen maintains that “if we continue to leave vast sections of the people of the world outside the orbit of education, we make the world not only less just, but also less secure”.

Education and the skills you learn in the classroom are important. But it’s not just about the learning.

I was delighted last autumn to become the patron of a new British Council initiative, which is taking up the challenge for action by launching Inspiring Women China.

Inspiring Women China is based on a successful UK-led model launched in 2013. Its aim is to break down gender stereotypes through real-life examples of what is possible.

Inspiring Women provides an opportunity for female professionals from a wide range of occupations to volunteer just a small amount of time a year – to go into schools to talk with young people about the job they do and the route they took to get there.

As the film so vividly portrays, research shows that children as young as 6-years old are already classifying particular careers as ‘male’ or ‘female’. If children hold on to this stereotyping, young women may never fulfil their true potential. They may rule themselves out of careers in which they might have otherwise excelled. Industries and employers fail to benefit from all the talent that is potentially available.

Already over 20,000 women volunteers in the UK, from apprentices to CEOs, women from all walks of life are talking to 250,000 children.

By rolling out Inspiring Women in China, the British Council and the British Embassy are supporting our country’s and our organisation’s commitments under the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

I am delighted that Yang Lan has joined me as patron of this wonderful programme. And this is the young entrepreneur and philanthropist He Lan at the first Inspiring Women talk in Beijing last month!

Let me conclude then by saying this. The world has much to gain from women fulfilling their potential and realising their dreams. All the women here are role models for achieving that. Thank you for getting involved with our peers and by inspiring the next generation, that is how we can truly accelerate progress.