Modern business woman

June 11, 2016

“It was the FBI in those days, ” she laughs. “My mother is thrilled about it. I have two daughters and I do think that these firsts matter. From the point of view of seeing that women can do well in business, it’s an important event.”

But even as the first woman at helm of the UK's biggest business lobby group, there are still things that wrankle her.

Fairbairn, herself a mother of three, is unhappy with why so many business dinners are held, pointing out that they are "not very inclusive" for career women with families.

Black tie dinners take place in large central London hotels most nights of the week, and are regarded as important networking events.

However Fairbairn, who has held a number of top business posts in her career, said bringing up three children meant she rarely attended such events. Instead she argues that these, alongside sporting events, are mainly attended by men.

She added: "I would rather have an early evening discussion panel, hold a proper debate, and then people can go home by 7.30pm."

Moving away from gender, other issues loom large, with Fairbairn, 54, having taken over just ahead of Chancellor George Osborne’s Autumn Statement on Wednesday at a time when her predecessor, John Cridland, has been criticised for making the CBI appear too slavishly pro-European.


Business Secretary Sajid Javid suggested in June that the CBI’s enthusiasm for Britain’s continued EU membership could hamper the renegotiation efforts of the Prime Minister, David Cameron, but Fairbairn is keen to defend Cridland.

“I’ve had a terrific relationship with him over the past four months and as far as I am concerned, I think he’s been a great director-general of the CBI.

“I don’t think he’s said anything different from what I’ve said, which is that most of our members – about 78pc – want to stay in a reformed Europe, ” she says.

Speaking on a tour of the North East for a regional CBI council meeting and visits to defence technology business Reece Group, car-maker Nissan and Teesside University, she doesn’t think Europe is her main issue.

“The main things our members are talking to me about are nothing to do with Europe, ” she says. “They’re about fixing the foundations of the economy for the next period of growth, so the conversations we’re having are around skills and infrastructure, regulation…and how we get out of exports being stuck at 28pc of GDP, compared to 45pc for Germany.

“Productivity across our industries is a real issue. The UK has 30pc lower productivity than the US; 28pc lower productivity than Germany.

“It’s a startling gap, but there are some sectors where we have shining examples. In the automotive sector, productivity is above global averages so we can do it. Nissan has a relentless focus on productivity. So does Jaguar Land Rover and I think one of the really interesting questions is how we take some of those lessons, that insight, leadership, innovation and constant improvement, and seed that across other sectors.”

She says she sees “signs of real regeneration” in the North East, despite fears that steel-related job losses in the region could rise as high as 6, 000.

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