This article was first published in the September 2016 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Lady Barbara Judge, the British-American lawyer and first woman chairman of the Institute of Directors (IoD), likes to set the agenda. Top of her list for this interview is women – unsurprising, given her role at the UK’s body for professional leaders and her involvement with the Women’s Executive Network, which provides development and networking opportunities for women. (One of her fellow advisory board members is ACCA chief executive Helen Brand.)

‘More women are being educated than men,’ she says, ‘but they still haven’t taken their rightful place in the councils of power.’ However, women are slowly getting a better deal. ‘Women in their 40s and 50s have suffered when there wasn’t equal pay for equal work.’ But with the advent of home working, the rise of non-traditional offices and the profile of the pay gap, women, says Lady Judge, ‘are doing really well. But it’s all new.’ 

And problems remain for working women with families, she points out, especially the escalating cost of childcare; pressure from society (including from other new mothers) for women to stay at home; and the need for a supportive partner.

The battle to have more women in senior roles is being won, at least in terms of non-executive positions. But Lady Judge is not satisfied. New research from the IoD gives an assessment of female representation on the boards of Europe’s largest companies. Conducted by European Women on Boards, the report, which examined the boards of 600 large European companies between 2011 and 2015, found that the UK had slipped from sixth to eighth of 12 leading economies, with 23% of board positions being held by women. 

Only around 3% of the chief executives of Europe’s 600 largest companies are women, a figure that has barely moved since 2011. In the UK women are CEOs at 4.8% of the companies studied. If women are to secure senior executive roles, then they must have run profit and loss on the way up. ‘Women are given HR, strategy roles,’ Lady Judge says. ‘Staff positions aren’t the road to the CEO office. My advice to women is take maths. You’ll earn a third more than women who don’t.’ She also recommends women gaining professional qualifications in accountancy, law or medicine because it gives them credentials, proving where necessary that they know more than men. 

Despite the hurdles, Judge is convinced that this is a magic moment for women. ‘At this time, women should walk into big companies and say “I am here; fast-track me and give me hard, challenging assignments”.’ Women should demand to be put in charge of profit and loss because they should be in positions where they create revenue rather than spend money, she says. 

Flying the flag 

Judge brings conviction, clarity and passion to all her roles – no more so than when they encompass a global angle. She enthuses about her role as a UK business ambassador, flying the flag for British trade and commerce as she travels across the world. ‘It is a great idea and an honour that you can represent your country as you travel and explain the benefit of trade with the UK,’ she says.  

She will have a lot more explaining to do on behalf of the UK following the country’s decision to leave the EU in June. ‘There’s no point in denying that the result has created uncertainty for business,’ she says. ‘But I am an optimist. I have worked in many different parts of the world, and British businesses are among the toughest and most inventive I have seen. They have no choice but to respond to this new situation and make it work for them.’

And while she looks to business to respond positively, she has advice for the UK’s political class. ‘We don’t know exactly what trading arrangement the UK will finally negotiate with the EU, but we know the deal will take a while to be done,’ she says. ‘While we’re waiting, the government’s watchword must be stability. This is no time for settling scores; we need politicians from all sides to agree that keeping the economy on track is the top priority.’

Learn from mistakes

Perhaps because of her undoubted success she is happy to admit she’s made plenty of mistakes. In a speech at the Lauder Institute, Wharton, University of Pennsylvania, at the height of the global financial crisis, she outlined 10 mistakes she had made. ‘I had plenty to choose from. Sometimes it’s bad luck; sometimes it’s a dumb decision. And nobody talks about it. But my theory is you have to.’ She adds that you should have your own private board of directors to listen to before you make a decision.

One mistake Judge highlights was turning down repeated offers to become chairman of biotech company Biocompatibles. A decade on, she regrets the decision because she would have learned about the biotech sector, which is now so important. ‘I asked no one,’ she recalls. ‘I was very busy and I thought this isn’t my field.

Her decision rankles now because it would have helped her in learning about dementia and Alzheimer’s: since her own mother was diagnosed with the disease she has become involved in organising a big charity event taking place this month. ‘I don’t know enough about medical science and clinical trials,’ she says. A 2015 report estimated that worldwide, 46 million people have dementia and an estimated 131.5 million will be living with it by 2050. Her mother, who worked until she was 88, is Judge’s key mentor, supporting her through the tough times and encouraging her desire to succeed. 

‘I am just constantly looking for something else to do’, she says of her career (see also box), which has had a fair share of twists and turns, including losing Private Equity Investor, a London-listed fund of private equity funds, to a hostile takeover largely because a clause protecting the company from such an event had dropped out in the drafting of the memos and articles. After that battle, Judge said she decided to get a government job. ‘At least they won’t sell my business,’ was her thought at the time. The result is a long association with the nuclear industry, joining the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority first of all, to run the audit committee. ‘The more I learned about the industry, the more it made sense to me,’ she says. Nuclear is the answer to the three big energy questions: security, ‘independence and climate change.’

That evaluation of evidence and independence of thought around nuclear are clearly attributes Lady Judge brings to every role, including chairing the IoD. She says she wants to throw its doors open, making it friendly and relaxed to women and younger entrepreneurs. And she is determined to put all her experience to good use. 

Peter Williams, accountant and journalist