We love a celebratory list in the UK. From the Sunday Times Rich List and the Courvoisier 500 to Nesta's New Radicals, every year brings a new hierarchy of brilliant, bright or affluent people for us to admire, envy or challenge.
However this year one list has certainly got everyone talking more than most. In February Radio 4 Woman’s Hour compiled their inaugural power list – a list of the 100 most powerful women operating in the UK today. It has not been uncontroversial. Eyebrows have raised at a number of issues – is the queen really the most powerful woman in Britain? Is the version of power depicted too traditional and narrow? Does this list show us how far women have come in equality? Or does it show us how little progress has been made?
The stats about women’s representation, everywhere from the boards of FTSE 100 companies (17.3%, and going down) to the democratic system (men outnumber women 4-1 in the UK Parliament) make for grim reading. The RSA Fellowship itself is more than two thirds male, so we've got a way to go to reach equality, something we’re working on. (One fact we are proud of however is that women have been Fellows since we were founded in 1754 – not true of most membership organisations.)
As often is the case with these lists we were happy to recognise several faces as RSA Fellows – one of whom was Rosemary Squire OBE. Rosemary is the founder, co-owner and joint chief executive of Ambassador Theatre group, the UK’s largest theatre owner/operator with 39 venues UK-wide, a major international producer, and a leader in theatre ticketing services through ATG tickets.
In the spirit of sharing the experiences of RSA Fellows, and (in the month of International Women's Day) the experiences of strong women, I went to ask Rosemary about the career and life of Britain’s 16th most powerful woman.
Rosemary Squire OBE
You’ve been named as the 16th most powerful woman in the Women’s Hour top 100 in the UK. How do you feel?
Great! I’m particularly excited that theatre, the industry I’ve worked all my life in, is up there with all these “proper” businesses. Theatre is a real business in this country and it is important it is recognised. I’m also pleased for all the people who have supported me to get here.
What did you think of the list, and how important are lists like this?
I think it makes you think about what is influential. It is an interesting list. Many of the other women are in industries, like politics, where they’re still massively under represented.
I know quite a lot of the women on there, and I thought there were a couple of things I saw we all had in common:
The first, boring as it may seem, is education, education, education. All those years of training and university and post graduates – at the time you might think well why am I doing this? But actually it provides all kind of skills that everybody uses, whatever they do. Education gives you the skills to be able to use the opportunities when they come up in life.
The second is role models. There is nothing more powerful that someone you respect and can identify with to be able to say “you know what, you can really do it. I’ve done it, if I can do it you can do it.” I’ve had that in my life and it is really important.
Who were your role models?
My Mother and my Aunt – they were unusual in their generation. All my family were grammar school kids, my Mum and Dad both went on to university in the war, and my mum was somebody who had studied, come up the hard way with really tough challenges at the end of the war. They were desperate to get teachers out in classrooms so she went out to teach, aged twenty, sixty kids in the class. Those skills have stayed with her for life, she’s always been prepared to turn her hand to anything, and that was a great role model for me and my sister.
They were the first generation to go to university. For my sister and I it was an assumption – yes of course we would.
There are 30-40 million visits to the theatre each year in the UK. And we sell 10 million tickets. So that is powerful.
You run ATG with your husband and you have three children. How do you manage the work/life balance?
I don’t think I get it right all the time. Although I think my kids are great, so in that regard I may have done a bit of it right!
I’ve been very lucky to have my mother down the road; she has been a huge help to me. All of my kids have great relationships with her. It has been a great safety net – a lot of people don’t have that.
I’ve had other support, including great nannies. I’ve always tried to be fair about looking after people, the support staff who help you. People undervalue how important it is to look after them – pay them properly, treat them with respect as you would any other employee, and don’t take them for granted. It’s about building that safe and secure network of people around you. My nanny has worked for me for 12 years.
The thing I think I’ve had to sacrifice is friendships, and a social life. Particularly in the last three-four years we’ve been so busy, since we acquired our biggest competitor in the UK, I just don’t have time. It narrows down to what you can do, you have to distil and prioritise, and the family and kids are my priority. It does all come at a price.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Definitely. I remember the days of women’s groups and selling Spare Rib at university. Literally reading The Female Eunuch on the beach aged sixteen and thinking my god this has completely changed how I see the world. Things haven’t changed. Don’t lets kid ourselves that the glass ceiling isn’t there, it is.
You know, having a child is like having a love affair, you fall in love with that child, and that love stays with you forever. I have my children in my head at any one time, somehow they’re just there.
How did you deal with it?
I think you have to have confidence in yourself. And you need a role model. I’ve known Christina Smith since the early 80s and she was brilliant, I remember her distinctly saying “well if I can buy buildings and do property deals, so can you – it’s easy.” She gave me that positive confidence to realise things aren’t as complicated as they appear to be.
There’s an awful lot of mythology about lots of things. Being able to ask questions about something you don’t understand and not feeling an idiot, that’s something I’ve gained with more experience. I now know its not stupid to ask. Anything can be explained.
Is there anything in your life that has nearly blown you off course?
I think things would have been different for me if I hadn’t had Jenny (Rosemary’s first child Jenny has Down's Syndrome).
I was in my 20s, and you do think you’ve got a charmed life. I got a first at university, I went off and did postgraduate scholarship, I got a nice job and a nice boyfriend and then we’re getting married and it’s all lovely. You assume, you take for granted, that your child is going to be healthy.
In a way it threw me back more into work, because I found it difficult at home. It wasn’t this experience I imagined. She used to wake up 8 and 10 times a night until she was 13, it was a nightmare in lots of ways.
So that could have easily thrown me off course. It made me ill in lots of ways, I had physical symptoms to deal with too. But then I had another child pretty quickly and I’ve been lucky enough to have another child in my 40s. It’s been fine long term. And in a way having a child with special needs does give you a perspective as well. A lot of the issues that are key are crucial for Jenny like money, housing, how to occupy yourself. It is very grounding.
You know, having a child is like having a love affair, you fall in love with that child, and that love stays with you forever. I have my children in my head at any one time, somehow they’re just there. I’m sure your mother does too. I’m sure I’m in my mother’s head.
How did you get into theatre?
I got into theatre through school and through where I grew up in Nottingham. I remember about aged 15 or 16 having a big argument with Richard Eyre in the school gym about why Nottingham Playhouse had suddenly started selling programmes as opposed to giving everyone one. He told me after that the theatre was on such a knife-edge that he had to get permission from the auditors each week as to whether he could carry on trading.
Is success the same as power?
That’s tricky. I think the thing that is powerful about our company ATG is that 25% of households in the UK have been to one of our theatres in the last couple of years. So our database is one of the largest arts databases out there. That’s something that is a responsibility as well as being a very powerful tool.
I think it is a responsibility to take people on a journey. That bit of magic you get in the theatre sat in a darkened box and watch people lit up on a stage. It is something that you can enjoy as a young child at a panto right up until you die. It makes you cry. It entertains you, and there is nothing wrong with that. It is an important part of life. I think it is just as important to people as all the material things there are in life.
It is a great success story, the diverse economy of theatre in this country, and our company, the one we’ve all built, it a great UK success story and something to celebrate. We do it really well in this country, the creative industries.
There are 30-40 million visits to the theatre in the UK. And we sell 10 million tickets every year. So that is powerful.
What’s your business style?
Well I don’t think it is Alan Sugar. I don’t want to be like that to be honest, why would you? I want to work in a more collegiate fashion. Whether it’s a ‘female thing’ or a personal thing for me, I’d rather find out what other people think and take a view that can hopefully be collaborative.
Finally, why did you join the RSA?
I thought it sounded intriguing to be part of a network of like-minded folk. And I’m a joiner-inner in life – I thought it would be fun. It is stimulating and offers ideas. I aspire to attend many more of the lectures and great things that are on offer.
And Matthew (Taylor) makes me laugh.
If you know a great woman you'd like to nominate for Fellowship go to our nominations page, or contact Mark Hall on 0207 451 6904.
Alice Dyke is Regional Programme Manager at the RSA. You can follow her at @ImAliceD or connect with her on Linkedin.