Sarah Brown on politics, public speaking and her new campaign for gender equality

Sarah Brown

To mark International Women’s Day on Wednesday, Sarah Brown launches #RewritingTheCode, highlighting how embedded values hold girls back. In an exclusive interview, the founder of Theirworld and executive chair of the Global Business Coalition for Education tells Director why companies must play their part

It’s the last day of January and the Director team has assembled in a photographic studio in a converted warehouse in Leith, Edinburgh, near an eclectic mix of homes, a bacon company, a decorator’s centre and a coach repair shed. There’s a chill in the air. The front pages of the newspapers are filled with protests across Britain against Theresa May’s invitation of a state visit to President Trump.

We’re here to interview Sarah Brown – businessperson, charity founder, campaigner and wife of former prime minister Gordon Brown – about #RewritingTheCode, her campaign to change attitudes and behaviours that prevent girls and women from succeeding and leading, and fulfilling their potential.

The campaign – which Brown, as founder and president of children’s education charity Theirworld, coordinated with WPP Group chief creative director John O’Keeffe and its branding and visual identity agency, The Partners – was specifically designed for International Women’s Day on 8 March.

“Look at those embedded values that are with a girl even before she is born,” she says. “All the values that surround who she is, what she gets to believe she can be, what the opportunities are that come her way, the doors that are open for her, the support that she gets. What we want to start addressing is everything that will take you on your journey through your career and through your life.”

Cultivating opportunities

Director magazine cover March 2017 featuring Sarah BrownBrown says that while strides have been made in equal opportunities for women, there’s an unwritten code that holds many girls back at an early age. She says the advent of new technology, changes to the workplace and global political climate could turn back the clock on progress.

“Time and time again you see girls have the greatest disadvantage,” she says. “We know that’s true for the poorest and most vulnerable children in the world, but also you see it all the way up to the top of the highest boardrooms, where you haven’t got sufficient representation for women. Where you do have more women coming in, you need them in greater executive roles, in greater leadership roles, stronger managerial roles, and a workforce that is built around them so that it suits the way they live and the way they lead.”

After leaving university, Brown spent almost a decade in communications, notably with agency Wolff Olins. Aged 30, she co-founded PR company Hobsbawm Macaulay with friend Julia Hobsbawm, working there for eight years before leaving in 2001.

“I left because I had my first child, and then I had the terrible loss of my child [Jennifer Jane died in January 2002, aged 10 days, having been born prematurely.] That was just a very different moment in my life that just caused things to stop and me to look at it all again. I never really had that moment of having to make a very big decision about working or not working.”

That year, Brown founded charity Theirworld, initially as a research fund to tackle complications in pregnancy. Theirworld aims to find better opportunities for healthcare and education, and to give equal status to the most marginalised, vulnerable children.

#RewritingTheCode, she says, can challenge businesses to look at what they’re doing, what they’re saying to the outside world and how they can contribute to what that future workplace is going to look like, so values don’t continue to be embedded in the wrong direction. Brown asks you, the Director reader, to look at the messages your business sends internally to women coming up through the ranks, and how it engages with external audiences, too.

“Look at your own employee base, at the opportunities that you give to women as they come into the business and the opportunities that they get to rise up through it. Look at subtle ways you can be sending out messages through your products and services. Advertising may be more thoughtful than it was 25 or 50 years ago, but there are other subtleties. Look at the images on your website or in your brochure. Make sure you’ve got pictures of women leading a group, not just listening in a group, and not just listening to men. And make sure that what you are doing is friendly to women and giving them that opportunity. There’s a lot that businesses are already doing around family-friendly [policies] and flexible working – and much of that is also of interest to men, too. Changes are not just for women, but they certainly help women  get the opportunity to come through a business and find themselves in a leadership role.”

Sarah Brown promoting the #RewritingTheCode campaign with singer Laura Mvula and Facebook EMEA vice president Nicola Mendelsohn

Sarah Brown promoting the #RewritingTheCode campaign with singer Laura Mvula and Facebook EMEA vice president Nicola Mendelsohn

Last summer it was revealed that, despite blue-chip companies having hit Lord Davies’s target to appoint women to a quarter of board posts in October 2015, efforts to appoint more women to the boards of Britain’s largest companies had then stalled. Less than a quarter of FTSE 100 boardroom recruits in the six months to March 2016 were women. In the FTSE 350, Davies’s voluntary target of 33 per cent by 2020 looks a long way off.

“It’s still the case that there is a pay gap, it is still the case that we haven’t reached the targets for women in the boardroom,” says Brown. Fewer than 10 per cent of the three most senior positions at FTSE 100 companies are held by women, compared to nearly a third of non-executive roles. Less than a fortnight after our interview, it is revealed that the rate at which women are being promoted to the boards of the UK’s largest companies has slowed for the first time – 29 per cent last year, down from 32.1 per cent in 2014.

“There is still a gap between executive roles and leadership roles,” Brown says. “And there is still a lot of discussion and debate about how we can reform the workplace so that it suits women with families, women who need more flexibility around working because they are carers in other roles in their lives. While that’s not exclusively women, women do carry the larger part of that.

“Certainly there is an improvement in women in the boardroom, but many of them are taking non-executive roles. I’ve done that. [Brown has been a non-executive director of Harrods Group since 2012.] I was so vocal during my time in Downing Street about women in the boardroom. I highlighted, in speech after speech, that there was a smaller percentage of women in the boardroom than there were in parliament – and no one thought parliament was doing such a great job. I think lots of women in business want to have that greater opportunity, and have a lot to bring.”

Brown warns against complacency as the future of the workplace becomes more automated. “Just as you’re getting to a point where you think you’re starting to make progress with gender equality,” she says, “it’s all taking off again. The future is robots and automation. Jobs are going to change and skills are going to be different. What I don’t want to see is that gender gap widening again because of the way the workplace is changing. Girls and women need to be very much part of that workplace revolution.”

Sarah Brown in conversation with Mozambique’s minister for education Graca Machel

Sarah Brown in conversation with Mozambique’s minister for education Graca Machel;

Nurturing skills for the future

Theirworld has been setting up code clubs for girls to increase their learning opportunities and help them fulfil their potential, offering a safe environment for Syrian refugees in Lebanon and clubs in east and west Africa. “The more skills you can give a young girl in that sort of circumstance, the more likely it is they will have greater choice for their own life as their teenage years unfold,” she says. “Where they’re contributing to their family, bringing income and have useful skills, they get much more power in their family and community.”

Brown admits there is a gap between girls and boys choosing computing clubs. “Melinda Gates, a computer scientist with a successful career at Microsoft, has looked into this,” says Brown. “If you look at the gender balance between the number of women lawyers and women doctors, it’s getting to 50-50 – and every now and then there are slightly more women training as doctors – but not in computer science. Actually, the numbers in America have gone backwards. She’s chosen to find out why.

“If you look at the sort of games that exist and the way that coding has developed, it’s very much designed for teenage boys who want to play those games. There’s not a lot there for girls who say, ‘I want to play that computer game’. There needs to be a ‘RewritingTheCode’ for code clubs, to give girls the opportunity to come and make the games that they want to play and the games they want to write.”

Sarah Brown inside Director magazine

An extract of our interview with Sarah Brown in Director magazine

She wants to ensure that women are equipped with the necessary understanding of technology, and the necessary skills. “You may not want to be a coder, but you should know a bit about it, [just like] you might not want to be a typist but you’re going to need to know how to use a keyboard. These are skills you need to either have or know about, because that’s what’s going to be part of your workplace in the future. If you’re going to be a leader in your workplace, you want to know something about that. So having that happen at the beginning – where girls are separated out and not involved in code clubs and computer clubs – is going to create a gap further down the line.”

Across the world, 263 million children and adolescents are out of school and 330 million are not learning basic skills. As chair of the Global Business Coalition for Education, Brown helps bring CEOs from the business community together to accelerate progress in delivering quality education. She says that, while corporate social responsibility has been transformed from the days of companies simply offering sponsorship or donations, there’s still some way to go for businesses who want to see themselves as responsible corporate citizens.

“I don’t think we’re quite there with that yet,” she says. “If we were, we wouldn’t still be grappling with pay gaps, and whether we’ve got gender equality, fairness for the LGBT community or racial equality within in our workplaces. None of that feels very easy or very comfortable at the moment. I think businesses are very willing to tackle these challenges… But it can’t just be tipping cash into a pot and hoping it all happens, it has to be a more sophisticated, thoughtful response and I think it’s still part of an ongoing journey, figuring out what that means and what that looks like.”

Over a decade spent on the inside of government has provided Brown with first-hand experience of the “decisions political leaders have to make when lots of people are asking for different things… I suppose I was drawn, during that time, to the potential of working together in groups of people and using a very campaign-focused approach. I’d already been involved with many different campaigns, including Drop The Debt and Make Poverty History, and during the time in government I led the Maternal Mortality Campaign…

“I would get the opportunity to go to the G8, take my campaign with me and then go up and talk to President Bush and, later, President Obama to say, ‘This is what I’d like to get done’. I could talk to them directly. I may never get that opportunity again, but I’d give it a go.”

Sarah Brown with husband Gordon and the Obamas

Sarah Brown with husband Gordon and the Obamas

Keeping progress moving

For the first five years of her husband’s chancellorship, Brown avoided public speaking. “You’d host a charity reception every single week, but I could always ask the charity’s CEO to make the speech,” she remembers. “But I realised over time that it was costing me what I wanted to say and what I wanted to do. About 15 or 16 years ago, I decided I would start making speeches. I cannot overestimate how hard I found it. The very first public speech I gave was in front of a lot of very friendly faces from charities I knew. I was so nervous I got to the end of it and I fainted. I was out cold. I still know people who were there that day who remember that moment, but I have doggedly got up there and spoken again, and again, and again.

“I can speak anywhere now. I’ve spoken at the UN, and I’ve spoken at the World Health Assembly [Brown gave the keynote speech at the World Health Organisation’s 62nd World Health Assembly, alongside UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon]. I can do anything now, but it took practice and listening to other people. For quite a long time I managed lots of clever ways not to be in that limelight, but in the end I think everybody’s got something they want to say. I think giving yourself your own voice is probably one of the most powerful things you can do.”

Brown also found a voice through Twitter. One of the earlier high-profile adopters of the technology, she joined in March 2009 because she had reached a point within life and within government where she didn’t want the things she had to say to go through another medium.

“I was cautious about doing an interview with a journalist and them deciding what it was I said, because we were living in quite a politically febrile time, and an awful lot of things were going on. At the time I wasn’t comfortable about just letting other people say what it was I wanted to say… I felt I had quite a responsibility being in the position I was, to be quite transparent about what I was doing and to be accessible without wanting to totally expose the whole of my private life and the way my family lived. You want to maintain that private side without wanting to always have someone else say what you want to say.”

Just five days before we meet, ardent tweeter Brown had re-tweeted a New York Times article headlined “President Trump’s War on Women Begins.” It was accompanied by an image of Trump surrounded by men signing a memorandum that freezes federal funding to health providers abroad who discuss abortion.

“The moment that President Trump decides that one of his first acts in office is to sign the ‘global gag rule’… The imagery – and this speaks directly to #RewritingTheCode – is the image of a number of white middle-aged men gathered in a room as they make a decision that will affect so many women’s lives really adversely. I have no doubt it will cost women their lives.”

Brown talks of how far we have come with equality, but also of maintaining the progress and not letting it slide back. “Right now we’re living in a moment where it feels possible that some of the great gains that have been made for a lot of different groups could go backwards.”

What’s driving this? “Political change,” she says, and not just in America. “I think you see it in some of the African leaders, you see it in some of the south-east Asian leaders, we’re seeing it across Europe now, because of political change where commitments are being made because people are so fearful of refugees and migrants, the movement of people around the world is creating an uncertainty and political decisions are being made where there is the potential that things can go back.”

On 7 March, Brown launches the #RewritingTheCode campaign at the IoD’s 116 Pall Mall HQ with a guest list of around 200 people. “High-level women are coming, but it’s not 200 women. The percentage of men attending is no greater than the percentage of women in a boardroom, so only a small group; the gender balance is reversed.” If Brown’s campaign is a success, perhaps next year’s launch will be attended by a more equal number of women and men.

Find out more

To learn more about how Sarah Brown’s charity is campaigning for children, visit and listen to her podcasts at

Sarah Brown CV

Education BSc, psychology, University of Bristol


1985 Various PR firms including Wolff Olins

1993 Co-founded PR agency Hobsbawm Macaulay Communications

2002 Founded  PiggyBankKids, later renamed Theirworld

2004 Theirworld founded the Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory

2012 Founded the Global Business Coalition for Education

2012 Joined Harrods Holdings as a non-executive director

2015 Theirworld Birth Cohort project launched

Patronages have included: Women’s Aid, Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres, Gingerbread and the White Ribbon Alliance for Safer Motherhood

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About author

Richard Dunnett

Richard Dunnett

Richard Dunnett is an associate editor who writes about entrepreneurs, SMEs, FTSE 100 corporations, technology, manufacturing, media and sustainability.

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