Interview: Noreena Hertz

In the first of her conversations with inspiring female figures, Lynne Franks meets an economist who plans to change the world.


By Lynne Franks, September 27, 2011
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Noreena Hertz: "Thankfully, I learned about having to work hard to get success"

Noreena Hertz: "Thankfully, I learned about having to work hard to get success"

Lynne Franks: I am interested in what being a Jewish woman feels like for you in today's society and how your upbringing as a young Jewish woman has affected your view of the world. Both your parents were Israelis weren't they?

Noreena Hertz: Yes. They were both born in… Well, it wasn't even Israel then.

LF: Palestine.

NH: Yes, Palestine and the British Mandate in mid-1930s.

LF: And your great-grandfather was a rabbi.

NH: Chief Rabbi here in Britain during the Second World War.

Noreena Hertz

Born: September 24, 1967
Early life: The great granddaughter of former Chief Rabbi Joseph H Hertz. Raised in London. Attended University College, London. Earned an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania and a PhD in economics from Cambridge.
Career: Made her name with her 2002 book The Silent Takeover, warning that over-powerful financial institutions would have serious global consequences.
Personal life: Engaged to BBC1 controller Danny Cohen

LF: Did that have an influence on you? Were you friendly with your great-grandfather as you were growing up?

NH: He had died before I was born. Well, I think it had an influence insofar as my father had completely rebelled after his teenage years at Carmel College. My mother was determinedly secular. I think the great-grandfather thing definitely played a role in how non-practising my father was. Actually, even the Chief Rabbi's own children - my grandparents - were not particularly religious, although we did use to go for Friday-night dinner at my grandparents'.

LF: So you were born in the UK. Your parents were born in Palestine, so they went from Europe and then came back here?

NH: My father came when he was 13 and my mother came when she was 21 and they met here.

LF: I know they owned Crochetta, a very successful fashion knitwear company in the '70s, as I did their PR.

NH: They were very successful then. It was quite an iconic brand at the time and even did the famous black-and-white cardigan for [TV cop show] Starsky and Hutch. It started because my mum's mum had a wool shop in Israel, a tiny wool shop, and my mum knew how to knit and crochet. She came to England. She went to the Bar to do her tutelage under a big lawyer here and she met my dad and they…

LF: So she was training to be a barrister?

NH: Yes. She met my dad. She was walking down the street in this jacket that she had made and this guy came up to her and said: "I am a buyer from Henry Bendell. Who made this jacket? I would really like to buy it?" and that was how it started with her hand-knitted jacket. It is really cool.

LF: So you are a rag-trade child?

NH: I really was.

LF: Were you conscious of being Jewish?

NH: Yes. My parents decided - because they were not going to teach us anything Jewish at home - to send both me and my sister to a Jewish primary school. So I went to Kerem Primary School in Hampstead Garden Suburb. But, for me, that school really didn't work that well. My sister left almost wanting to be a rabbi but for me it was … Firstly, I had a real problem with that prayer every morning. I used to mouth "I am so glad I wasn't born a man" every morning. So it kind of bothered my innate feminism even as a child.

LF: The other kids at school - presumably they were brought up in quite a Jewish way?

NH: Yes. They would look at their packets of crisps and carefully read the ingredients. I would eat the crisps and not look. But as the child of two Israelis with foreign accents I definitely had a clear sense of having a connection to another culture. There was a lot going on in that period to do with Israel when I was a child. My mother was really involved with the Refusenik campaign with Soviet Union Jews. They would come and stay at our house, some of them, after they managed to get out of the Soviet Union at the time. There were things that were Jewish-related happening in my house quite consistently but it was much more from a kind of activist standpoint. Do you know the phrase tikkun olam? It means "repairing the world". That was the Jewish identity I had. We did a few ceremonial things at home. We did light Chanucah candles. We did have a Seder. I would say about half the guests would typically not be Jewish. I remember helping organise the food for the big Seders, 40 or 50 people. There was a Jewish identity but it felt quite different to the North London Jewish world.

LF: Were you always academic?

NH: I was pretty bright. I was good at exams but I wasn't the typical smart academic kid. It came easy. Thankfully, later on in life I learned about having to work hard to get success. But I think in my early years it came pretty easily. So it allowed me to have lots of extra free time.

LF: And what did you do with that free time?

NH: I acted. I was in the Old Vic Youth Theatre - every week from the age of 13 to 15.

LF: You didn't get batmitzvahed then?

NH: No, no. I don't think my parents even know that there was such a thing. I don't think that was such a common thing in those days. I have still never been to a batmitzvah. I acted. I worked in my parents' shops. I worked in Petticoat Lane market. I always had to work.

LF: I did as well. Do you think that is really good for kids?

NH: Definitely, absolutely. It is really important for kids, especially kids in North London, middle-class homes, to have to work for their pocket money.

LF: I think that that is why a lot of Jewish people are entrepreneurs - because they get that work ethic put in at quite a young age.

NH: When they are young. It is their parents who are entrepreneurs and they are helping out their parents or whatever. It was definitely the right way to have been brought up.

LF: So did you ever think you would end up with a Jewish partner?

NH: I think I was religion-blind. It wasn't an issue for me but there is a shorthand that actually I hadn't been aware of, that I now have which I hadn't known that I was missing in other relationships. I think there is a shorthand.

LF: You are engaged to Danny Cohen, head of BBC1.

NH: The one thing I will say about the relationship is that he has reintroduced me to some kind of Jewish traditions, like we light Chanucah candles, and I had my first Seder at my home and it was really nice. It is something I want to do again.

LF: Doing this series of interviews I have started noticing how many wonderful, bright, strong Jewish women there are out there. I just wonder, is there something about Jewish women, and men, in terms of being seekers and thinkers?

NH: We definitely are disproportionately represented when it comes to thinkers and creators. I think there is something you gain from being an outsider. A lot of the women you are talking about have blazed trails in their own way. Women who have managed to get successful normally have had to carve out pretty much their own route for doing it, because there are few roadmaps for how, as a woman, you become successful. You think about having to do it yourself, you carve your own way. Does that relate to being Jewish?

LF: It is quite interesting because Orthodox Jewry is very much about the woman staying at home and looking after the children and cooking the meals. And yet, contrarily, there is this other group of Jewish women who have followed their passions, their careers, their skills in a way which is not really encouraged by Orthodox Jewry. How do you feel about Jewish women who think their role in life is just to support their man and look after the family in a world where more and more men are taking on co-parenting or full parenting responsibilities?

NH: Yes, although it is still such a tiny percentage of men in the secular community.

LF: In one in five households now the woman is earning more than the man.

NH: I bet she is earning more but still doing the cooking or a disproportionate amount of the housework. I saw some figures on housework recently and they were shocking. Even working women are doing 70 or 80 per cent of the housework. Not in my house. We manage to share that. I think firstly we have to value the work that women do in the home. I mean, housewives and mothers are actually working incredibly hard but the problem is that, as a society, they don't get valued for that.

LF: I remember it being discussed at the UN Conference for Women in Beijing in 1995 when I was there and it hasn't changed in the slightest.

NH: It really hasn't. But as far as the woman behind every man part of it, I am keen to see more of these women, Jewish or not, stepping out from behind their veil and sharing their insights and empathy and intelligence and enthusiasm with a broader constituency than just their own immediate family.

LF: Would you call yourself a feminist?

NH: Definitely, absolutely. There is no hesitation there at all.

LF: Do you think your mother was a feminist?

NH: Definitely. I grew up in a home where I was literally told from a young age, "no daughter of mine will ever wash a man's socks", and I am pleased to say I never have. It was made clear that whatever I wanted to do I should aspire to, regardless of my gender. My mother was involved in lots of women's things. I mean, she was co-chair of the 300 Group. She started and headed up the Women into Public Life campaign in the '80s. She died in 1987. It is quite shocking actually how little has moved on. We still have women under-represented in most positions of power. Also, shocking discrepancies continue with women and men doing equal jobs getting paid different amounts. Even in professions that one would expect there wouldn't be a difference - like hairdressing - we still see a significant wage differential.

LF: The one industry that doesn't is PR, except that men own most of the companies. It is a 17 or 18 per cent difference for most industries. Salaried women staff are paid 80 per cent of the equivalent male salary, and then for part-time workers it is even less, isn't it? So there is a lot to do. Do you see yourself helping to do it? I believe that your books have had a real effect on how people view the economy.

NH: They are definitely on best-seller lists all over the world. The first book highlighted what corporations could and should do beyond traditional business, the roles that they could and should play in addressing environmental problems, social issues, labour rights. Also this idea that, through the power in our pockets, we can make a difference as shoppers as well as voters, an idea that actually became the basis of RED (a global fundraiser started by U2's Bono, American activist Bobby Shriver and Hertz).

LF: Your book, 'The Debt Threat', came out before the current economic crisis, didn't it?

NH: That came out a couple of years before the crisis and actually in the book it said that within five years we will probably be seeing a big crisis off the back of debt, and indeed we have. It was obvious to me that the system was quite flawed in its existing modus operandi.

LF: What do you see for the future?

NH: I am quite gloomy on our economic situation in the foreseeable future.

LF: Do you think we are going to have another big recession, a double dip?

NH: I think there is a significant chance that we will fall back into a recession. There is both a European crisis and an American crisis happening simultaneously. Unemployment figures in the UK are very worrying, especially youth unemployment and especially when you look at it regionally, the north-south divide. I think that the strategy to cut so many public-sector jobs - 500,000 public-sector jobs - is going to be detrimental for everyone in this country. If you do that at a time of recession, how will the private sector soak up those jobs? It won't be able to, so you won't have people with money to spend to get the economy going. So I am worried about what is going to happen in the coming years.

LF: Let's say you could wave a magic wand and do it differently, what would you say is the way out then?

NH: I think the government could and should be investing more now. This is the time for the government to be thinking about our longer-term competitive future as a country, to be investing in better infrastructure, both to support our physical industries and also, increasingly, the technical and internet side, and to be investing in green energy. China is really moving ahead compared to other countries in terms of investing in alternative sources of energy. Actually, that is an industry that we in the UK could have a pretty strong competitive advantage in - with wind power, for example. We could be investing in our collective future and, at the same time, that means giving jobs to people who don't have jobs, making sure people are working. You have a kind of short-term fix - people with money in their pockets to spend - and a longer-term fix where you are investing in the country's future. I think there is an alternative economic narrative.

LF: Do you think any of the political parties have that vision?

NH: I think the Conservatives have kind of fixated on a narrative that there is no plan B. The only thing we can do, they say, is make incredibly tough cuts, tougher than anywhere else in the world. It is the most vulnerable in our society who are affected. Children with special needs are seeing their programmes closed down at colleges. It is bad, bad. It will be interesting to see how the Labour and the Lib Dem economic policies evolve over the coming months.

LF: Would you ever be tempted to go into politics?

NH: I think it is a job which potentially enables you to really get involved and address issues that truly concern you, whether it is unemployment or bad health service… Up until now I have tended to feel that I can be effective outside of traditional politics but I might come to a different conclusion at some point. Do you remember my nurses' campaign?

LF: Yes.

NH: I really wanted to highlight the fact that nurses were so undervalued in society, the fact that they were having to juggle three jobs just to have enough petrol to drive to work. It was crazy. The people that we really rely upon when we are at our weakest were so undervalued. I came out with a campaign and I did get footballers to give up a day's wages for nurses.

LF: How much did it make?

NH: It raised almost £1 million but it also got nurses on the front page of newspapers day after day. So I think nowadays it is not only politicians and governments who can affect change. We can affect change as individuals through campaigns, from mothers in a playground running a campaign over pesticides in food to businesses taking on the responsibility to address some of the biggest social and political issues globally. Did you see Unilever announcing that it was committed to lifting one billion people out of hunger, I think? Let's check that figure but I think it was a billion people. GE investing hundreds of millions in clean energy and new ways of energy efficiency. PepsiCo investing in ways to recreate its foods so that they are actually nutritionally supportive. I think this is a really interesting time for anyone who cares about this kind of tikkun olam, these issues. We have many ways in which we can do something.

LF: I was going to ask how you saw the future, but I think you see it as very much about tikkun olam?

NH: Yes, it is about us collaborating and co-creating a different sort of future. We have seen incredible things happen just in the last few months. Dictators fall because of revolutions started on Twitter. These are quite unusual times where change is possible.

LF: Where do you see women's role in this future? Is it different to men's?

NH: I think women need to recognise this opportunity and step up to…

LF: Assert their power?

NH: Yes. Lean in towards the power. Step up to this possibility. Girls are brought up to be nice and pretty and good but they are not typically brought up to aspire to be powerful. I think that is something that we collectively as a world need. We need women embracing their power.

Details of Noreena Hertz's books, including 'The Silent Takeover' and 'The Debt Threat' are at www.noreena.com. For details of Lynne Franks's women's retreats, visit 'www.lynnefranks.com'

Last updated: 1:49pm, September 27 2011