Lady Barbara Judge: Long maternity breaks are bad for women

Long baby breaks can hurt your career, warns the IoD's first female chair.

by Kate Bassett
Last Updated: 18 Oct 2016

The UK has one of the most generous maternity packages across the world: new mothers are allowed up to 52 weeks off work, 39 of which are paid. But these family-friendly laws are damaging women’s career prospects, according to IoD chairwoman Lady Barbara Judge.

‘I know it’s counter-cultural but I think long maternity breaks are bad for women,’ she says. ‘A friend of mine worked at Reckitt Benckiser and wanted to take a year off to look after her adopted baby. I told her: "You’re mad. You have a great job and, trust me, you’ll lose it if you take a year off." She took 12 month's maternity leave, she returned to work – and then three months later the financial crisis hit. The first job they cut was hers. Why? Because her boss had been doing her job for a year. They realised they didn’t need her.’

Judge, who grew up in Saddle Rock, New York, believes the US has a better system. America is one of just a handful of countries across the world that doesn't guarantee paid maternity leave, although companies with more than 50 employees have to provide 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave following the birth of a child. ‘It gets you back into work; you don’t come off the tracks,’ she says. ‘I took just 12 days off when my son was born.

‘My mother used to say: ‘When a baby is born it needs to be fed, bathed and diapered. An 18-year-old girl can do that. Your job is to get the money to pay the 18-year-old girl. When you have to be there is when the child gets smarter than the nanny.’

Judge says her mother, Marcia Singer, has been a great influence in her life. Singer created a pioneering university course at the New York Institute of Technology called World of Work for Women. ‘She believed that women should work – not because they’re poor or alone but because they have a brain and they should use it. They should make their own money because money is independence. She worked up until she was 88.’ It was Judge’s mother who advised her against becoming an actress. ‘She said, "If you want to act, go act in front of a jury".’

So Judge went to New York University School of Law and graduated with the highest honours. She interviewed with 19 different law firms. It was the late 60s: women were being made legal secretaries, not lawyers. One partner told her, ‘We’ve figured out how we can make a woman happy in this firm: we’re going to put flowers on her desk every Monday morning.’ Another suggested she choose a job based on ‘which office has the curtains you like best’. Judge wasn’t fazed. She became a corporate lawyer, was made a partner in 1978 and, two years on, became the youngest-ever commissioner at the US Securities Exchange Commissioner.

Her career since then has included stints at merchant banks, Rupert Murdoch’s News International, the Pension Protection Fund, the UK Atomic Energy Authority and Tepco’s nuclear reform monitoring committee. She’s been described as the ‘best-connected woman in Britain’.

Judge puts her success down, in part, to dressing appropriately. At law school, Judge had a Farah Fawcett-style hairdo and wore miniskirts or crochet dresses – and she continued to dress like that in her first job. A year and a half in, the senior partners told her they were going to fire her because she ‘didn’t look like a lawyer’. ‘When I complained to one of my male colleagues, who I assumed would be on my side, he said: "Barbara, they’re right. You’re too smart to look this dumb. Go home and clean up your act."’ She smartened herself up, opting for navy skirt suits and high-neck blouses – and she kept her job.

‘What I’ve learned is that 70% of a first impression is how you look, 20% is how you sound, and only 10% is what you say,’ she says. ‘There are no second chances to make a first impression.’ 

Lady Barbara Judge was a guest speaker at the WMA's Women In Wealth Forum.

Want to know how you can super-charge your career? Come to MT's Inspiring Women event on 16 November. Read more here


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