Ten minutes might not seem long enough to adequately discuss gender equality with the mayor of London, but let’s be honest – Sadiq Khan isn’t exactly your average mayor. Take this afternoon’s public appearance, for instance: as the ex-solicitor whizzes into the Southbank Centre and jumps on to the stage at the art venue’s Women of the World festival, 200 young schoolgirls whoop and holler like they’re at their first Selena Gomez gig without their parents. The kids are digging it – and the “it” is a politician. Jacob Rees-Mogg he isn’t.
“It’s heartbreaking to think that for the girls we’ve just met, the reality is that even in 2018, in the most progressive city in the world, some of those girls who could be amazing scientists, CEOs, politicians, probably won’t because they’re a girl rather than a boy,” Khan tells me, backstage in the Southbank Centre’s green room, minutes later. The 47-year-old mayor perches restlessly on the edge of the sofa – eager to chat, mindful of time. “That can’t be right,” he shakes his head, before careening through our conversation at breakneck speed. “I’m impatient for a change.”
During our brief interview, Khan’s impatience is palpable. This is a man who knows he’s only got 24 hours to work with on any given day – and he doesn’t want to waste a minute. As a consequence, conversing with the Tooting politician is a bit like trying to sprint alongside Usain Bolt – you’re just thankful you can keep up with the pace, albeit with a breathless wheeze.
This year, to mark 100 years of partial women’s suffrage in the UK, Khan’s new campaign – Behind Every Great City – is dedicated to driving gender equality in the capital. “The Mayor will use the centenary of the Representation of the People Act in 2018 to work with London’s many leading industries... to support the continuing success of women,” the press release states. City Hall’s year-long programme includes women’s art on the underground and the unveiling of Millicent Fawcett’s statue in Parliament Square.
“Our surroundings do matter,” he tells me. Khan, more than anyone, knows just how important representation is; in 2016 he became London’s first ethnic-minority mayor and the first Muslim to be elected mayor of a major Western capital. And yet days after our conversation, he uses a speech at the South by Southwest film and technology festival in Texas to read out racist tweets he deals with on a daily basis, simply for working as our mayor; one, specifically, deriding him as a “muzzie terrorist”. Perhaps this is what’s driving him in his quest for gender equality this year. Celebrations aside – despite a Millicent Fawcett statue and a minority mayor – there is still a lot more work to do to address inequality in our capital. This mayor’s sat on the edge of his seat for a reason.
This fight for gender equality won’t happen with just women and girls leading the fight: we’ve got to join them. And the good news? We’ll all benefit
When Khan first launched his new campaign in the new year, he promised to do everything he could to remove the barriers to women’s success. What does he think those barriers are in 2018? Without prompting, Khan dive-bombs into the #MeToo movement. “The biggest barrier is us not realising that these issues have existed,” he says. “And I think the biggest barrier is men not realising that they have a role as being allies to women. This fight for gender equality won’t happen with just women and girls leading the fight, we’ve got to join them. And the good news? We’ll all benefit.” For Khan, the economic gains are clear. He points me towards a McKinsey Global Institute report from 2015 that calculated that $12 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025 by advancing women’s equality. “If women have their potential fulfilled, businesses are more successful, productivity increases; aside from the social and moral case, which is clearly important,” he adds.
The #MeToo movement has had a massive impact in terms of how we’re now talking about harassment, abuse and inequality, I tell him, but many women now want to move beyond the hashtags and see real action this year. Does he recognise this? “Don’t assume talking about it is a done deal,” he pushes back with real passion. “We can’t assume that people have heard the message about ‘Me Too’, the harassment in Parliament – or in Hollywood. But you’re right, we’ve got to walk the walk.” Khan tells me he walked the walk in 2016, when he published City Hall’s first gender pay gap audit, which revealed a significant gap (“Five per cent, roughly speaking”). He’s now committed to addressing this disparity and closing it, he tells me. “Flexible working, part-time working, sponsorship, mentoring, name-blind applications for jobs, childcare – that’s the action plan,” he says.
As for violence against women (this week, data released by the British Transport Police confirmed there were 2,382 sexual offences reported on on British railways, including the London Underground, last year. A figure that’s doubled since 2013, he appears to be walking the walk there, too. Last week, Khan published a strategy to tackle violence against women and girls alongside a £44m investment promise. The prevention plan includes a new Women’s Night Safety Charter – dubbed a “partnership to tackle unwanted sexual behaviour on the transport network.”
At a time when women’s rights seem to be backsliding around the world, I wonder whether he feels the pressure to represent women like me, who feel like, for too long, they haven’t been heard. “I campaigned to be a mayor for all Londoners – and more than half of Londoners are women and girls,” he tells me. “When people tell me that when you’re a woman using public transport you’re more likely to be harassed, when people tell me when you’re a woman you’re more likely to be victim of violence against you; as someone who wants to be the best mayor I can be, it impacts my policies.”
Khan is well aware that we’re in danger of sliding backwards, citing the rise of anti-feminist movements as a reason to keep hashtagging – and talking – to keep up the momentum this year. “What I’d say to those who aren’t currently signed up to the feminist agenda: if you believe it’s wrong for women and girls to be discriminated against, if you think it’s wrong that the average chances for boys are better than for girls simply because of the fact that they’re a boy – then you’re a feminist,” he tells me – with a shrug that says, “it’s really that simple.”
And with that, the #MeToo boomerang spins back round, full circle. “We now have A-list Hollywood stars talking about the experiences they had,” he says, before asking me to imagine all those women who aren’t Hollywood actresses, or leading journalists, or well-known politicians. “My worry is, that it puts off other women and girls from entering those professions,” he says. “What I’d say to them is, look, things have been bad in the past but there is a whole group of people who have decent values and who believe in the importance of gender equality.”
A member of Khan’s entourage looks at their watch. Our time is up. “We should be optimistic about the future,” he says – less a suggestion, more a post-#MeToo command. Those 200 schoolgirls, the girls he so eagerly calls “the changemakers”, depend on it.