Interviews – Lady Howe

Lady Howe’s career has been something of a contradiction. A politician’s wife who left her job to play a supporting role, she is a vehement campaigner for women in the workplace. A Tory advocate of the Open University, she took her own degree at the famously left-of-centre London School of Economics. Over 20 years into public work she launched into boardroom politics and decided that business was ‘the most interesting of all sectors’.

Lady Howe is an active woman whose CV suggests that sitting down for more than ten minutes might prove a challenge. In fact she is relaxed and cheerful, a consequence perhaps of her gradual relinquishing of various posts. Last year she resigned from the board of the Kingfisher Group, after standing down as Chairman of the Broadcasting Standards Commission in 1999. She remains Chairman of the BOC Foundation for the Environment, a post she has held for ten years, as well as President of UNICEF UK, a governor of the LSE and a member of the Council of the Open University – not bad for a woman in her 70th year.

Her proudest achievement, however, has been her part in the fight for equal opportunities in the workplace. Frustrated by the ‘waste of talent’ that she sees – predominantly in the City – she has campaigned for more women in leading roles and a greater understanding of the work/life balance. As a woman who has cared for a family and then pursued a career, she refuses to countenance any ‘right’ way of managing both: ‘All that I would advocate and continue to advocate is enough flexibility,’ she says.

She helped to pioneer the Equal Opportunities Commission in 1975 and is ‘amazed’ at the change in people’s attitudes and the great strides that have been achieved by and for women. However, she rails against what she calls the ‘clubby culture’ – where organisations are still dominated by male authority which refuses women entry to the upper echelons. For this reason, she maintains the pressure through Opportunity Now, seeking to expose companies who do not have women involved in major decision-making at boardroom level. ‘I haven’t ruled out positive discrimination,’ she admits, ‘but I think it would be a pity.’ Perhaps this is a strange cause for a woman whose career has been largely influenced by the political calling of her husband, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer Geoffrey Howe. It is easy to imagine the ‘clubby culture’ of Westminster might have lent a helping hand in her own progression.

Having failed to get into Cambridge in the early 1950s, Lady Howe did, in her own words, ‘the traditional thing’ and became a secretary. Unfortunately, her first job was short-lived: ‘I was working for a friend of my father’s who was an architect and he promptly died on me,’ she recalls with a slight chuckle. A brief spell with Country Fair – ‘I thought I might like to be a journalist’ – and a longer one with the Architectual Association was followed by marriage, at 21, to Geoffrey Howe. ‘I left the job to help Geoffrey fight his first election at Aberavon,’ she explains, and the arrival of their first child cemented her decision. This was not the end of her career, however, but the beginning.

Voluntary work, she says, was the staple diet for politician’s wives of the period. She spent some time helping out LEAs in the east end of London before becoming a juvenile court magistrate and sitting on the governing boards of various schools. She also sat on the Lord Chancellor’s Legal Aid Advisory Committee, and admits that she had considered reading law when, as a mature student, she went to LSE to take her degree. ‘I think inevitably being married to a barrister one gets drawn into [the subject],’ she nods, but by this stage her daughter was also reading law, and Lady Howe decided the family could do without another lawyer. ‘I thought from my work down the east end that what was needed there was psychologists,’ she says. ‘But the question came at once, “How good are you at maths?” Maths was not my subject, so I did social science.’

There followed a period of almost preternatural activity during which Lady Howe chaired, governed and advised anything that stood still long enough. ‘It was quite a lot but somehow you fit it in,’ she says airily. Regard the tenacity and determination that has characterised her work, and you realise that this is one woman who has carved her own career independent of the benefits that might have been available as a Parliamentary spouse. She has cut her own path, no more evidently than when she approached the Business in the Community project with no direct business experience but an informed understanding of the social climate in the East end. She was impressed by how swiftly the businessmen and women seconded to the project nurtured ideas and brought them to fruition, a far cry from the sluggish pace of the LEAs she knew so well.

When asked what first attracted her to business, Lady Howe replies, ‘The energy and the innovation of business leaders, because they are untroubled by bureaucracy, they have huge amounts of power, but if things go wrong they will go.’ She threw herself into that world with a passion, with non-executive directorships at United Biscuits, Legal & General and finally Kingfisher. At the latter she was able to carry on her social agenda under the company’s motto, ‘a healthy business needs a healthy community’. Ready to admit mistakes, such as the company’s unsuccessful restructure in the mid 1990s, she nevertheless believes that overall the company has achieved a great deal in terms of social responsibility as well as financial obligations.

However, Lady Howe is not one for sentimental reflection. Sipping coffee as she looks back over her career, there is satisfaction in her voice but she issues constant reminders that there is more to be done. More for women, more for the environment, more for education. She has been through some tough times. In fact, her pioneering attitude has met with strong resistance, not only at the EOC but also at the Broadcasting Standards Commission, and media coverage has not always been friendly. However, she retains a good sense of humour despite – and due to – the stresses of her work. ‘You’ve got to be able to laugh, and laugh at yourself, or you might get very depressed,’ she jokes.

Does she enjoy the struggle? ‘I think the answer is that you don’t want it all the time. You occasionally like someone to say that you might have done something right!’ she laughs, but then the determined streak is back. ‘If you really think that what you’re doing is right, then stick to it, stick to it,’ she repeats. Even the middle of the Kingfisher debacle, she says she never felt like quitting. ‘Absolutely not. That’s what you’re there for. If there’s a difficult time then it’s 24 hours a day.’ Her ‘ability to persuade’ is the one she considers most important; ‘If you really think something is important, then the ability to convince others and to go on convincing others,’ she sees as her most vital skill. She is a woman who has made words count, but her actions have had a great impact too, particularly for women. She has proved that it is possible to have your cake, eat it and campaign for it all at once.

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