Lady Barbara Judge CBE, the outgoing chairman of the Pension Protection Fund (PPF), starts our interview by paying tribute to Ros Altmann, the pensions minister.
“Without her, there would be no PPF. She campaigned extremely hard for it to come into being. She is the perfect choice to be pensions minister. I have the utmost respect for her,” she enthuses.
It turns out that Judge is not just an advocate of Altmann but of all women, from her inspirational mother to young female entrepreneurs.
As the first female chair of the Institute of Directors, she wants to throw open the doors to other women. “Our member base is under 20 per cent women, but among young members that proportion rises to 50 per cent. I believe in promoting young entrepreneurs.”
In theory, she does not believe in quotas but says the results from having them are “excellent”, explaining: “Sometimes you have to kick the ball hard to get it to roll in the right direction.”
What can women bring to the party? “Women are great multi-taskers and very smart. They bring diversity to the board table.”
Role models are also important for young women to have, she believes. “We need to get parents and teachers to raise their sights for their daughters, to put in place the idea that they are equal to men. And that needs to be done early.
“Times are changing but they are not changing fast enough.”
She believes young women should be steered towards careers in science and engineering, adding: “A woman can boost her prospects by studying maths or accountancy. If a young woman studies maths, she will earn a third more than if she did not. I studied history and believe I have been playing catch up my whole life.”
For someone playing catch up, she has held some very senior roles, both executive and non-executive, in the public and private sectors.
A one-time chair of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, her current interests span energy and infrastructure as well as pensions. She supports a new runway in the south east, and believes the reactors at troubled Hinkley Point will be built because they have the support of the UK and French governments.
How has she risen to such prominence?
“My mother. She was a dean at the New York Institute of Technology and taught women in the 1950s and 1960s that they should work because they have a brain, and that they should earn their own money because money brings independence. She taught me to get back on the horse if I fell off.”
Judge has just stood down from the PPF, dubbed the pensions lifeboat, after serving the maximum two terms as chairman. The PPF, which takes on the pension schemes of companies that have become insolvent, has grown under her stewardship. Assets have increased from £4.6bn in 2010 to £23.4bn this year, while the ranks of members have swelled from 47,000 to 225,000.
“It has been a fulfilling time,” she says. “When I joined, people said it was a lifeboat that is going to sink. As I leave, I can safely say that the lifeboat is sailing straight and securely towards is goal – protecting defined benefit pensioners.
“I am very proud of what we have achieved. We have steadied the ship and built up public confidence. We give pensioners the ability to sleep at night without worrying about the squalls in the economy. We weathered the Lehmans' crisis.”
Judge says the regulator and ministers will keep a close watch on what happens in the future as it prepares to onboard members from the BHS pension scheme, and potentially from vast British Steel scheme too: “We can cope with a large number of people coming into the PPF. It is not being overused: it is doing its job of protecting pensioners.”
Judge is turning her hand to fundraising in the hope of making an impact on dementia in honour of her mother, who succumbed to the effects of the disease after retiring at the age of 88. She will be chairing a dinner in September on behalf of Dementia UK and the Alzheimer's Society.
It is not the only task at hand for Judge, who once said her ambition was to “die at her desk”. She is poised to take up the chairmanship of Cifas, the fraud prevention service.