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Change the nature of the table itself and change the rules – a Women in PR lunch with Jacqui Smith

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On the 5th March, I had a spring in my step as arrived at the Allbright Mayfair to chair and host ex-Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, our speaker for the inaugural WPR spring lunch.

Any nervousness I might have felt at introducing someone of Jacqui’s exceptional background and level immediately disappeared when we were introduced at the pre-drinks (it wouldn’t be a WPR event without bubbles) as she was warm, down to earth and incredibly easy to talk to.

With a career that started in government affairs and 10 years’ public sector experience under my belt, I’ve met my fair share of MPs, with varying degrees of success. Despite knowing full well that to be voted into parliament by the public, being human is, or should be, a prerequisite, I’m still always impressed every time I meet a politician with undeniable human qualities and it wasn’t only me who was impressed by Jacqui’s warmth, openness, and candour, but our guests too.

Jacqui spoke about a range of topics including:

Her work with Empower, the strategic communications practice which works to empower women within the public and private sectors.  Its campaign efforts this year are absolutely aligned to WPR’s as it is currently looking into the benefits of flexible working and ‘job shares’ and how these ways of working can have a positive impact on improving female representation at senior levels.

She talked about her time in government, looking back at her role as chief whip and how the role is still characterised by using macho terminology. Of course, her position as the first female Home Secretary, when she was a new mum, was discussed and how she had to leave her son when he was a few months old.  The day after she got the job, a car full of explosives was found in Haymarket, and the next day the people responsible for this drove a car into Glasgow airport – as you can imagine you could hear a pin drop in the room as she retold the story. She recalled the pressures of instantly being responsible for the welfare of the country and the fact that the media were surprised by her calm and confident response and management of the incidents as if her handling would be less measured than that of a man because she was a woman.

We were all delighted that she shed light on how she felt about the ‘Blair’s Babes’ label given to her and her peers by the media as then MP Tony Blair introduced the largest number of female MPs into the Cabinet, ever. She shared her frustrations with the media and the fact that men were not characterised using similar derogatory language. One particular example she gave that stuck in our minds, was when she was referred to as the ‘minister of melons’ after an image of her in the House of Commons was taken at an angle that revealed her cleavage despite her not wearing a low-cut top.

Given the furore of MP Tracey Brabin’s off-the-shoulder top in recent times, it really makes you think that things really haven’t changed very much and that there is so much more work to do in this area.

However, when it came to Blair’s Babes, she did explain they were able to take major steps forward for childcare, women’s pay, supporting children and families and supporting flexible working, and that has to be a positive thing.

Having worked at the Met Police during Jacqui’s tenure as Home Secretary, I was particularly interested in her time there and work in trying to change the criminal justice system, focusing on crimes like domestic violence and FGM, emphasising the importance of having women in these roles to make a difference and make these important steps forward. In her own words “we need to change the nature of the table itself and change rules.” 

I for one, am grateful and inspired by women like Jacqui who have worked hard to get a seat around the table and who use their positions of power to make a real difference for others. Those of us who have the opportunity to ‘change things from the inside’ should continue to recognise and value the influence we have.

The event was sold out, so for those who weren’t lucky enough to get a ringside seat, we are sharing some of our favourite quotes from the day:

“All of us have set-backs and it’s how you respond to them that is the most important thing.”

 “We need to broaden out from women’s issues – I want women doing economic policy, defense and security.”

 “When you get women in influential positions you change things for the better and do things differently.”

 “It’s important to tackle misogyny as a hate crime – both on and offline.”

 “Sometimes I think we’re not good at reflecting on what we’ve achieved and praising ourselves…but it’s so important.”

 “Coronavirus is going to be a challenge for the country but could be an interesting experiment for the success of flexible working.”

 On Empower:

“We are really excited about flexible working and specifically job sharing which has so many benefits…it ensures diversity, creativity, and talent.” 

 We would like to say a huge thank you to Jacqui for speaking at the first WIPR lunch of 2020 and do watch this space for more events, which will, of course, be in-line with Coronavirus developments and guidelines.

#IWD2020 #WPRlunch