We caught up with London Mayor Sadiq Khan on International Women’s Day.
The gender pay gap, women-only workspaces and the British economy all make for heated debate on International Women’s Day.
As Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan today sits in a position that has never been held by a woman. But he doesn’t want anything to stop young women, including his two teenage daughters, from having the freedom to aspire.
“The aim is for them to do whatever they want to do, for no career to make them think: ‘I can’t do it, because I’m a woman, I’m a girl’,” said Khan.
In some ways progress is clear: this year Cressida Dick was appointed first female Met police commissioner, and Dany Cotton took up the position of Britain’s first female fire chief.
But sadly we have a long way to go (two in three girls cannot name a female leader in the field they want to work in) and we are at risk of slipping backward, Khan said today at an AllBright event at City Hall.
“I think we’re at a crossroads,” Khan told The Memo on International Women’s Day.
“My frustration in years past is that we’re only inching forward [but] for the first time ever in my adult lifetime, I think we’re in danger… of that progress being reversed.”
We should be carving a better world for future generations, but politics and pop culture risk making the world more difficult to navigate, said the London Mayor.
“If you’re a woman now, who puts their head above the parapet on social media, you could have threats made against you,” says Khan.
“With the rise of populist movements, with the leaders of some countries saying things, behaving in ways which many of us find abhorrent, some of the progress we’ve made could be lost.”
That’s why we can never take our foot of the gas, Khan warned.
“My argument would be, even when we achieve gender equality, we should have International Women’s Day – to celebrate the progress made – but also to be sure we never become complacent.”
Khan has pledged to be the most pro-business advocate that the capital has ever had, and gender equality is vital to this, he says.
“If I want to be the most pro-business Mayor London has ever had, that means women playing their role.”
London makes up around a quarter of the country’s economic output, around a fifth of British taxes.
“That’s now, with gender inequality,” Khan appeals.
“Imagine what we could achieve if women’s potential was fulfilled?”
Khan has already started to implement changes, changes that set Britain in good stead to become a leader in gender equality.
He started with City Hall, becoming the first mayor ever to commission a gender pay audit. He then got all the functional bodies he has charge over – the police, the fire service – to do the same.
He’s identified ways women can be more successful, and is implementing them through schemes like Skills for Londoners.
“You can’t expect a young girl on a council estate in south east London to be the next Kelly Hoppen without access to finance, to ideas, to mentoring.”
“We’ve got to make sure we understand what concerns, barriers, obstacles there are for young Londoners who are women,” says Khan.
One trend London may buck however, is a shift towards women-only workspaces (these have already sprung up in US cities like New York, Washington D.C., Phoenix and St. Louis – and there’s already one in Stockholm).
“One of my concerns in relation to this fight for gender equality is an assumption that it’s only a women’s fight,” says Khan. “That’s why I think it’s really important for us to share your experiences to understand the challenges so we can help others reach their potential.”
Khan said that for City Hall to call for women-only workspace probably wouldn’t be right, but that his business advisory board will help him to listen to informed advice from women entrepreneurs.
“I think it’s a decision for entrepreneurs, and for those who are in charge of the workspaces, to make based upon how they reach their full potential,” he said.
As far as Khan is concerned there is one choice – to move forward.
“We need to think about there being no stigma around part-time work, flexible working, mentoring, supporting women, looking at the issue of gender blind applications for promotion, giving people grants and bursaries to take career breaks if need be,” he said.
“We either believe that in the workplace there should be economically active women, or we don’t. And if we believe that women should be economically active, we’ve got to make sure we recognise that women are not unreasonable in wanting to have children.
“Women are not unreasonably wanting to make sure the work-life balance is right.”
Anything should be possible, for anyone, with the right support, says Khan:
“I want to make young Londoners realise they can do anything, subject to being given a helping hand… for me, it’s a battle for all of us.”
Kitty Knowles is a Senior Features Writer at The Memo. Kitty previously worked as an online journalist for GQ. She can be found tweeting @KittyGKnowles.