YVE NEWBOLD went to a strict convent school when she was six years old. She is now company secretary of Hanson plc, earning a six-figure salary. The two facts are not unrelated.

Yve (it is short for Yvette: her father was Belgian) says, 'My internal metronome is set quite fast, so my idea of relaxation would be to run twice round Hyde Park: about eight miles. I think I'm the only one in my family set to quite this pace and I don't know where it comes from, though I suspect it was honed by my childhood environment. Those Roman Catholic convent boarding schools are mighty pressurised places for a little girl. They rated the work ethic very high.'

Yve Newbold personifies the successful businesswoman. Wearing a severe, beautifully tailored navy blue suit and neat starched and striped shirt, she blends perfectly into the plushily silent corridors of Hanson's headquarters near Hyde Park Corner. She has been described as a 'glacial Hitchcockian blonde' and indeed she is glamorous, with extraordinary slanting green eyes, but not in the least glacial: quite the reverse. She is warm, frank and generous. She whooped happily at the memory when I asked if she had dressed at Biba or Mary Quant. 'I loved all that buzz in the Sixties . . . those were good years. My husband bought me the most staggering Mary Quant outfit in zebra stripes. It was revolting, and I felt wonderful in it]' She won't say what she spends on clothes today, but admits that her salary means she hardly ever washes her own hair - 'My lovely hairdresser is a therapy for me.'

Her life, however, has not been a smooth, perfectly coiffed glide to the top. She emerged from her tough Brighton convent in the late Fifties with a clutch of O- and A-levels and, at 17, wondering where to go next, she fell in love and married. 'He was already at King's College, London, and I was about to embark on my law degree, but we fell desperately in love and at 18 I had my first baby. By the time I'd finished my degree, four years later, I had two children. Then we both embarked on solicitor's Finals and I qualified at about 27. It took me a bit longer because by then I had four children.'

I groan in sympathy, for I too can remember working through the Sixties with toddlers at my heels. 'Wasn't it exhausting?' I ask. I had forgotten the speed of her metronome. 'Oh no,' she says. 'Yes, I was busy, but I was young, so I had bags of energy, flexibility, enthusiasm. I can only recall being tired when the children were sick and one had to get up two or three times a night. It was the studying that kept me going. That was an antidote to the nappies and sieved prunes. After the children were in bed at 7.30, it was a very quiet time, and I would do four to five hours' reading every evening.'

Between the lines one glimpses the discipline that made such a punishing routine possible. All four children in bed by 7.30, and silence thereafter] It's not a record every parent can boast.

'I always envy mothers who can look at those little rosebud faces at the end of the day and take 100 per cent satisfaction in motherhood. I think such women are saints. But for someone like me, having read Little Red Riding Hood 17 times, it was a relief to be able to talk to my husband about aspects of Roman law or jurisprudence; and reading Chitty on Contracts was highly enjoyable.

'My husband was a great help with the children, but he was quite selective about the things he would do. I once came in and found him retching over the side of the bath, so we agreed after that: no more nappy-changing. The greatest thing he did for me was to take his six weeks' annual holiday while I did my exams. So he was very much a hands-on father, and the children - now all grown up - still adore him.

'Toby, my youngest, was four by the time I went out to full-time work, and the eldest was already 10, so they weren't babies any more. At the end of the Sixties, I joined IBM as a lawyer because they paid enough for me to be able to afford a nanny. But it's interesting that my daughter, now a very successful barrister, has chosen to do the opposite of what I did. She's in her thirties, and doesn't want to interrupt her career yet to have babies. Mind you, in my day there was rather less choice. But I fear she'll hit that biological gateway and get frantic.'

Interestingly, Yve Newbold believes today's young women may have got it wrong. Rather than wait until they have established careers and good salaries, she thinks they should get their child-bearing over as early as possible, then forge ahead with the career.

'Though I would like to see a much easier workplace for women, with six months' maternity leave and a month off around the time of your children's O-levels,' she adds. 'I would like far more flexibility. We tend to think these patterns are set in concrete, yet as we saw in two world wars, what were thought to be sacrosanct practices are very easily jettisoned. New technology is going to lead the way in all that. The company secretary of Hanson could easily operate from home with a fax and a computer terminal, and come in one day a week to sign and see.

'Part of the trouble is that for women the home is very much their preserve; but, as you notice when men retire, the home is not their natural domain. They feel out of place. Not wanted on voyage. They die. For them, the workplace is more like home than home. These rigid distinctions will soon have to break down.

'In the same way, some middle-class women still put a kind of Keep Out sign round their children. Stamford University did some research with 20- year-old men and an 18-month-old baby. They left them alone for 48 hours. For the first 24, both sides were deeply miserable, but by the end the baby had trained the men to become 'maternal'. Men and women both have these innate nurturing characteristics; it's just that in men they're not always brought out.

'Having said that, the pressures on you at the Bar are particularly intense. It's a very male-oriented hierarchy, and a very hard career for women to combine with motherhood. I loved being a young lawyer - the camaraderie between colleagues - but it all gets more dificult when you start knocking on the doors of those people whose jobs you might take. They feel threatened because they somehow think you can use feminine wiles and they can't. But it's the old joke, isn't it? If women can sleep their way to the top, how come so few of them are there?'

What are the implications of this for women aiming high? Must they be better, more hard-working than the men? Must they play office politics?

'There is almost no aspect of life that doesn't have political overtones, and office life is no exception. But women are in a very different position from the men on that playing field. They are probably unable to establish the easy rapport that comes from the golf course, the locker room, the pub. Women have the advantage of their superior intuitive skills. Women's and men's perceptions are worlds apart.'

She illustrates that by acting out a recent conversation between two men, in which the dominant one is rejecting and humiliating the other, though his words are affable enough. At the end, the top dog turns to Yve and says, 'There you are, you see: he didn't mind at all]'

'That man,' says Yve Newbold, 'was screaming inside]'

This is why the greater equality of women in the workplace is so crucial: not simply for ideological reasons, but because it makes for a better, happier and fairer environment. 'If both genders don't partake, it risks being one- sided, prejudiced, and ignoring the needs of a whole sector of society. But the impact of feminism comes last to big business, especially during a recession, when the assumption is that men need the jobs more.'

What was Yve Newbold's route into her job at Hanson, a notably unsentimental company, not noted for tokenism? Ten years ago she was the senior international lawyer for Xerox, based in America. This gave her the experience that made her ideally suited to the Anglo-American framework of Hanson. Has her working life required her to make compromises? This must be a question she has been asked before, for she gives a logical, condensed, three-part answer. 'I have certainly had to do work I didn't always enjoy: but that's always true. Wherever you are, there's going to be a 10-15 per cent dross element. I've had to compromise my time. I've certainly been away from my family more than I would like. But compromising my ethical standards? No. I would never do anything with which I was deeply uncomfortable. I couldn't sleep at night. I'm sure this is because of my Catholic upbringing. The old guilt would

corrode all sleep - and for that rea-

son I've sometimes been extremely

unpopular.'

Hanson plc is known for buying up old-fashioned, not very profitable companies, pruning them ruthlessly by selling off the units that don't pay, and making the rump much more efficient. I ask Yve whether this unsentimental approach to disposable manpower does not have a whiff of the unethical? She responds with a lucid and plausible defence of capitalism.

'Men and women ought to be able to invest in Britain plc, because the more they do so, the better that is for the country. What is best for the shareholders is to run an efficient company that makes good profits and invests in the future. Well, that's good for Britain, even if it sometimes involves forcing people out of jobs. How many button hook manufacturers are there around today?

'Hanson's attitude is to bring efficiency to companies. When we took over Imperial in 1986, we let a lot of people from headquarters go. A year later, more than 90 per cent were re- employed.' (It wouldn't be the same now, I point out, and she agrees.) 'If you run your company philanthropically but unprofitably, nobody will invest, and it will quickly go out of business. If push comes to shove and you can't afford to keep people on board, you put them back into society, lots of them with very good redundancy payments. They then start new small businesses and the cycle begins again. That's how commerce is regenerated.'

After this taut defence of business ethics, it comes as a slight surprise to learn that Yve Newbold is still an ardent practising Catholic. 'I did have a long break, but then I kind of rejoined . . . as I got older and wiser, I was looking for a deeper meaning in life. I sometimes try and duck in to the six o'clock Mass at Farm Street (close to her office). Just to sit in that church for 45 minutes brings me a great sense of peace and calm. It's a time of reflection; sometimes the best part of my day. I feel I have a duty to put something back into society, and I certainly feel I should be tithing some of my income: that's another of my Catholic principles.' But Yve Newbold has no desire to advertise her charitable activities.

What are the material benefits of her high-pressure career? In a novel, the temptation would be to assume that she gets her rewards from sex 'n shopping. Yve Newbold does not encourage questions about her private life, so I ask instead if she enjoys shopping? 'I get grossly bored and very miserable if I shop for more than about an hour. I rush down the road to somewhere like Harvey Nicks the day before the Hanson AGM and choose something that fits me and looks serious. You have to dress seriously to be taken seriously. But I don't plan my wardrobe; I just buy at the last minute and hope it will all come together on the day. I'm not very extravagant.'

She is wearing an exquisite watch, an immaculate suit and glove-soft shoes. I suggest that she must spend at least pounds 5,000 or pounds 6,000 a year on clothes. She laughs: but whether because that figure is ludicrously high or far too low I cannot tell. Yve Newbold can be charmingly poker-faced when she wishes. 'I probably spend more on clothes than I need to,' she concedes.

Anything else? 'I drive the most lovely red Jaguar XJS and I love it]'

Our interview has over-run by three minutes, and somehow, without glancing at her watch, Yve Newbold communicates this to me. Her day is assigned in precise segments of time, and her concentration is moving to the next one. Yet she, and not her personal assistant, escorts me to the ground floor and waves me out of the smoothly sliding shatter-proof glass front doors. If this is the face of women in the boardroom, I'm in favour: red Jaguar and all.

(Photograph omitted)

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