British Ambassador's speech at Alibaba Global Conference on Women and Entrepreneurship

Barbara Woodward, British Ambassador to China, delivered a speech at Alibaba Global Conference on Women and Entrepreneurship on 20 May.



What an honour to be joining this conference.

Women who have already achieved so much, are eager to do more and ready to help others.

What an honour to be sharing a platform with such distinguished speakers as HRH Queen Maxima, Arianna Huffington, Lucy Peng and Zhang Ziyi.

Most of all, though, what a pleasure to talk today on a topic which, like you, I live and breathe every day! So thank you Jack Ma and Alibaba for the platform you have given me today.

Intro- self/China’s century

Three months ago, I became the 21st British Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China.

The relationship between the UK and China goes back several hundred years. The first Chinese visitor to Britain was a man by the name of Shen Fu-Tsung, and he arrived in about 1685. Shen’s arrival caused such a sensation that King James II didn’t just demand an audience with him, he also had his portrait painted and hung it in his bedroom!

The UK’s early attempts to establish a presence in China took a little longer to bear fruit. We tend to think of the first British Embassy to China as that of Lord Macartney in 1793, but his request, which originated from George III, to establish an Embassy here was declined- very politely- by the Qianlong Emperor of China.

Happily, the relationship now is strong and fruitful as we saw during HRH The Duke of Cambridge’s visit to China earlier this year. This autumn, HM The Queen will welcome HE President Xi Jinping to the UK for a State Visit, which will be a milestone in our relationship.

So far, British exporters have made China Britain’s sixth largest export market. Chinese investors have consolidated Britain’s position as the most popular European destination for Chinese investment. And the people on both sides- hundreds of thousands- of tourists, exchange students, scientists, experts, artists and performers, sportsmen and women, are all building ties between our two countries.

So when I first heard that I was to become British Ambassador, I was honoured and delighted.

And, with all that history behind me and potential ahead of me, I was also- to be honest- a bit daunted.

China: the most exciting economic growth story of our generation.

So much has been written in recent decades about the rise of China. What it means for the international order, for the global economy, for poverty eradication, global health, education, climate change, science…..Not for nothing do we often hear that the 21st century is “China’s century”.

But I also knew that, in all those centuries of history of bilateral relations between our two countries, this is the first time the job of British Ambassador to China has been held by a woman.

I knew that meant something too and, among all the other priorities, I wanted to make something of it.

Happily, this is not just a sentiment or a ‘nice thing to do’.

Many analysts now agree that, over the next decade, the impact of women on the global economy as producers, entrepreneurs, as academic, political and cultural leaders, employees and consumers, will be at least as significant as the impact of China.

More importantly, there is a cost of doing nothing. The cost of not harnessing the energy of women in the economy is estimated at more than $9trn. In the UK alone, the Women’s Business Council says we will miss out on around 10% GDP growth by 2030 if we fail to tap the potential of women in the economy.

So it reminds me that the other reason today is such a pleasure is because this speech pretty much wrote itself. As soon as I was invited to come, I knew what I wanted to say. It is this. The century we are living in is not just the century of China. It is the century of women. Which puts everyone here – women in China – pretty much at the centre of everything.

The century of women.

Let’s recap some highlights.

It’s more than 1500 years since brave Mu Lan – immortalised by Chinese arts and Disney- dressed as a man to save her ailing father from serving in the army and served with such distinction alongside her male counterparts that nobody guessed she was a woman.

It’s about 1400 years since Wu Zetian –immortalised in a Chinese blockbuster- was China’s first and only Empress (690-705/as distinct from Empress regents): she waged an aggressive struggle for power but her rule that was benign. And that was despite Confucius saying that a woman ruling was “as strange as a hen crowing at daybreak” (551-479BC).

It’s over 400 years since Elizabeth 1 ascended the throne of England. A charismatic Queen (1558-1603) who gave her name to the Elizabethan era, which was characterised by the plays of Shakespeare and the exploits of Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh exploring new horizons.

It’s exactly 200 years since the birth of Ada Lovelace, whose mathematical work on Bernoulli numbers is widely acknowledged by mathematicians to be the first computer programme.

It’s more than 100 years since Marie Curie became the first woman to win a Nobel prize and the first person ever to win two Nobels (physics, 1903; Chemistry 1911).

It’s about 100 years since Emmeline Pankhurst in England, Susan B Anthony in the US, Eva Peron in Argentina, and Tang Qunying here in China demanded the same voting rights as men.

It’s nearly 90 years since the birth of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s only woman and longest serving Prime Minister from 1979-1990.

And, if you’ll allow me a couple of examples of personal interest: it’s only 89 years since Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim the English Channel. And just over 40 years since Roberta Gibb became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon. (1966). And who wasn’t delighted to see Li Na win the Australian Open last year!

And finally, in our own 21st century of women, it is almost three years since Malala Yousafzai was shot by a gunman (2012) for her advocacy of education for girls. And just one year since she was awarded the Nobel prize (2014) for her struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.

These are an eclectic selection of examples.

But these and so many others tell an important story of women across the ages in all walks of life and in all countries and communities.

They tell the story that the road has not been easy. But they also tell the story that momentum is gathering, finally, in the 21st century, in which women enjoy choice and opportunity in their lives and that the world will be richer for it. That the century of women is now within our grasp.

The century of women: Let’s take stock for a moment

In the 20 years since the 1995 landmark UN Conference on Women, held here in China, in Beijing, whose achievements we celebrate this year, we do indeed have much to celebrate.

In the early years of this century, we have seen a surge of women winning Nobel prizes. And we have seen more women in positions of leadership. The new British Parliament, for example, contains 191 female MPs: more women than ever before. And the new Cabinet is 30% women.

More women leading business. Among our leading companies, the FTSE 100, not all have managed to meet Helena Morrisey’s inspiring call to have 30% women on their boards by 2015, but now they all have at least one and last year 33% of appointments were to women. And Helena’s 30% Club has spawned a worldwide movement.

We have seen similar breakthroughs here in China, in Baidu, SoHo, Huawei, Haier, and our hosts Alibaba. Funnily enough, research shows that companies with diverse boards have a higher return on equity too.

We have seen progress in tackling violence and discrimination against women, including the remarkable campaign of William Hague, former British Foreign Secretary and Angelina Jolie, Hollywood actress and UN Special Envoy for Refugees, to prevent sexual violence in military conflict.

And we have seen and welcome the engagement of men in the debate. A sort of yin and yang of progress. I’m excited by the growing number of signatures to the UN’s Hefor She campaign, as they move towards their target of 1m pledges by July 2015. There are many examples in the private sector too. Of which Muhtar Kent, CEO of Coca Cola’s 5by20- the commitment to support 5m female entrepreneurs by 2020 is the most ambitious in its reach. And we see more public discourse, like this conference.


There is not a single country in the world where women have equal economic and political power to men. That’s a sentence worth repeating. It should never lose its power to shock. There is not a single country in the world where women have equal economic and political power to men.

The Global Leaders Meeting on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment this September, which will be hosted by UN Women in collaboration with the People’s Republic of China will still have a lot on its agenda.

As Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the IMF, who has done so much for women’s advancement, has reminded us: the progress on levelling the playing field internationally has stalled. The gender wage gap stands at 10-30%.

Inequality makes a route out of poverty even harder to find. Although women in sub Saharan Africa manage 80% of the farmland, they access only 10% of the credit available for smallholders.

And female genital mutilation, rape, sexual harassment are still tragic, debilitating and unwarranted parts of the lives of many women and girls. I pay tribute to the many activists around the world who are campaigning for an end to them. And I welcome awareness raising activities, like Laura Bates’ EveryDay Sexism project which remind us of the everyday currents in our society that leech our energy and undermine women day after day. We all know egregious examples. I am not going to dignify the examples by repeating them.

What to do?

The century of women is a prize worth having, not just for women but for all society. There is not one country not one region that wouldn’t benefit. It seems so close. But there is so much to do. Each of us has a part to play. So that together, with the sum of all our efforts and ideas, we can finally step over the threshold to make the 21st century a century of women.

With that in mind, and to stimulate discussion and thinking, I want to share some of my own organisation’s story: what we have done in the Foreign Office. And I want to make a personal commitment here in China.

The FCO’s story

The Foreign Office started behind the line. Women were admitted to the FCO only in 1947. “About time too” said Lady Cicely Mayhew, who was one of that cohort. But even then, until 1972 they had to resign on marriage. The first female Ambassador was appointed only in 1976, and the first married Ambassador not until 1987.

But we have been catching up this century. I am proud to be part of that. And I salute the work of Sir Simon Fraser, the Permanent Under Secretary of the FCO and the Civil Service Diversity Champion, in the last 5 years.

Now 35% of the FCO Board are women.

More than 20% (over 40 of 200) Ambassadors and Heads of Mission (includes Consuls General) are women. That includes top posts, tough posts. More appointments to come this year will take that number up again.

What have we done?

We have posted Ambassadors to neighbouring countries, most famously our Ambassador to Vienna was married to our Ambassador to Slovakia, so the Ambassadors were only 50 miles apart!

We have Ambassadorial job shares, where a couple is appointed to a single Ambassadorship, and rotate between the job and home.

We have flexible and remote working. So one Ambassador’s wife, also a diplomat, had a job that was notionally based in London, but she used IT and remote working to do it while accompanying her husband in Africa.

We have career breaks and unpaid leave for up to 10 years. We have a nursery in the FCO, where staff can leave their children while they work.

I’ve used Ambassadors as examples, but these and other initiatives apply to all staff. They allow us some flexibility to keep our talented female staff while allowing them to build careers and lives that adapt to wider demands and pressures.

Behind the appointments, we are trying to address the many and often invisible barriers to women’s advancement.

In job adverts, we try to make sure we don’t put women- or any minority- off in the pre application stage.

In building confidence, through talking to women about the skills they have and what they could bring to a job, to make sure they are not ruling themselves out before they apply.

At interview, so we take unconscious bias training.

And in creating a supportive environment, through leadership learning sets, mentoring and coaching.

I’m not going to pretend it’s easy. There is a personal trade off to consider when moving a family and spouse across countries or continents. And, as Simon Fraser openly admits, we haven’t won yet.

But I hope some of those examples will stimulate discussion later today in the breakout groups. And I shall welcome a chance to hear from others.

Now, finally, my own commitment as the first female British Ambassador to China.

I’m delighted that over 60% of my staff in China are women. And that around 50% of my top management roles are filled by women.

In my first full week in the job, I hosted a debate for International Women’s Day which brought together five inspiring women speakers and a lively audience for QandA.

I have been back in touch with the inspiring migrant women at Hua Dan, a social enterprise which empowers women through theatre, where I volunteered last time I was in Beijing.

On visits to Chinese cities outside Beijing, I have been privileged and inspired to meet women in a range of senior jobs.

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

And I have met bright students at universities who quiz me as hard about Britain’s membership of the AIIB as they do about how to succeed as a woman! And that’s a particularly poignant question for the generation of one-child families now growing up in China.

I sense no lack of ambition. I see some familiar obstacles too.

But one thing I recognise from the early days of my own job search is curiosity about the choices.

When I look back to the early years of my job search, before I joined the FCO, I don’t remember anyone telling me I couldn’t do this or that.

But the problem was that it took me some time – admittedly an interesting journey- to hear about the sort of things I could do.

So I want to do more to help girls and young women across that threshold.

To make girls and young women at university more aware of the ways that they can channel their ambitions. To give young women role models and an understanding of business and careers before they leave education and enable them to think big about heir futures.

So I am delighted to become the patron of a new initiative called “Inspiring Women”.

It’s been going in the UK for a while. It’s translation to China is the brainchild of Carma Eliot – an inspiring woman herself. The Head of our Cultural and Education network in China, a former Consul General in Chongqing and Shanghai and indeed our first ever female Consul General in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. And the mother of two girls. That’s genuine trailblazing!

The concept is quite simple: with our partner organisations, we will encourage women at all levels to volunteer some of their time to visit schools and universities and to talk to students about their career, their education path and their life choices.

This is a small opportunity for everyone to get involved and make a big difference. So many of the women I work with may not even realise the extent to which they too are role models to others.

I very much hope that, in the future, other organisations across China might see the opportunity to adopt this scheme, so that together with the sum of all our efforts and ideas we can finally step over the threshold and make the 21st century the century of women.

I started by claiming this century for women. I now want to invite you to join me in making it that.

Thank you.

Published 22 May 2015