The unstoppable Baroness Sandip Verma is a woman of many roles. She is a businesswoman, Chair of UN Women UK, a wife, a mother, and a devoted protector of women’s rights determined to end violence against young girls. Led by a strong ethos for hard work, Baroness Verma has found the purpose in life around self-actualization and global activism for gender equality.

From May 2015 to July 2016 Baroness Verma served as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for International Development. She has been a Conservative member of the House of Lords since 2006 and previously served as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for DECC.

Recently, she discovered the wonderful practice of meditation and every morning she allocates the time to sit in silence and get in touch with herself. For the Wives of Westminster, she talks about life’s big questions, her formative years, women empowerment, work-life balance and how to take a high road in life.

Who was the most important female figure in your life and why?

Baroness Verma: I think there have been several female figures in my life, but I must start with the most obvious to me and that was my mother. She along with my father came to the United Kingdom in 1960 with a nine month old baby (me) in her arms, she was unable to speak English, came to a cold and faraway land to a completely new culture and made it her home.

The reason why she is so important is that she didn’t allow the very conservative and traditional views my father had for women to hold her back. She embraced the wonderful freedoms of a liberal country and balanced that with retaining parts of the culture she had left behind in India. She learnt to read, write and speak English, to drive a car and along with my father set up a manufacturing plant producing high fashion knitwear.

It was by watching my mother and seeing the possibilities of achievement if the belief of being able to do was there, however difficult and daunting the challenges appeared to be. This was at a time when most women in the UK had fewer rights than men and less access to services and protections in society.

Baroness Sandip Verma

She instilled in all her children the seed of self-worth and a strong ethos for hard work and aiming high. I expect part of this was the result of own childhood, losing her own mother at a very early age, having the opportunities to enjoy a normal childhood taken away, my mother showered whatever she thought was right on her children and continues to do so now on her extended family of grandchildren and great grandchildren.

My father’s resistance to his daughters having ambitions and personal choices seemed to be at odds with my mother’s dreams of seeing her children go to university and entering professions. Sadly the will of my father saw that there was no university education for me or my siblings but the belief and ambition my mother had instilled meant we had not lost the determination to dream and believe.

I knew what I wanted from an early age and whilst I had no links into politics what I knew quite confidently, putting your mind to wanting to do something, you find the paths, you meet the people and you seek out the opportunities.

You are a career woman and a wife. Which role was more difficult and why? Were you ever placed under the choice ( in my view is a false choice) to choose one or the other? Can women have it all?

Baroness Verma:I started the first family business at the age of 19 in manufacturing high fashion garments, I had my first child at 20 and took on my first mortgage. It may have looked like madness but I think youth gives you the confidence to be daring in taking challenges on, fear of failure was never an issue as I saw any steps that I took that were wrong or unhelpful taught me valuable lessons on my journey. Being married to a person whose personality was quite different to mine was I believe very helpful, I haven’t needed to make choices between my work or my family.

Baroness Verma

My husband recognized early on in our marriage that I had a set of skills that he did not and likewise my skills complimented his, we were both determined that where our children’s lives were concerned we would both try and be as least disruptive to their lives as possible.

My own upbringing meant that I was probably far more liberal in my approach to parenting and ensured that of my own limited knowledge of socially and economically mobile people that I provided my children with access to opportunities and people that I could only have dreamt off, having success in my business had enabled me to do that.

Ultimately in life we all have to make choices, I haven’t found any role difficult, I love being a mother, my husband is a great friend and confidant and starting up and running businesses is the enabler to keep my mind fresh with ideas.

Baroness Sandip Verma

I turned to politics several years ago when I realized to many people spoke on my behalf without speaking to me, so decisions I had no say in where taken for me but without me. I think different times in your life produce different challenges and therefore different responses, it also means you don’t have to jam everything you want to do in a set time frame but enjoy the journey and take the pressure of yourself.

You are celebrated for your activism against the violence against women and girls. What prompted you to dedicate your time to the cause and what, in your view, are the most pressing problems women and young girls face in our society today? How can we make a change, as women, for other women?

Baroness Verma: I think being born in a culture that had such strong distinctions between what the expectations were between the genders and in the same instance being told that you had to stand up for yourself when facing discrimination because of the colour of your skin, undoubtedly had a huge impact in how I viewed the world around me.

What do you believe is the best way to empower young girls and women to achieve and overcome gender and race limitations and prejudice?

Baroness Verma: When you grow up being discriminated against in your own families anything that happens externally becomes normalised, to hard to tackle and change, so there must be a serious shift on how we portray girls, people of colour in roles that move away from those that embed a stereotype image that leads to normalisation. How we highlight the work of trail blazers and challenge the places, institutions where change is slow. I know that self belief can be dented if all you face are barriers however ensuring that the laws we have are properly used and that no one should ever feel they cannot come forward to raise their concerns.

During my formative years, it was normal to see domestic violence as an accepted behaviour that predominantly men carried against women without having to bear any consequences, it was okay for people be called names or be set upon because you looked different.

Baroness Sandip Verma

Whilst I think a lot has changed, sadly abuse is now found in many more forms, partly the pressures of body perfection, of media in all its forms and of the almost normalisation from the political and corporate landscapes of behavioural attitudes that enable power games to be played where the control buttons are firmly in the hands of men. It is critical that we call out unfair bias, discrimination and disadvantage where we see it and are continually challenging the barriers that still exist.

Whether it has been through my political engagement or my role as a businesswoman, I have been determined to shine a light on where actions need to be taken and celebrate where we have people making a positive impact to ensure changes for the better are being made. As an energy minister I set up Powerful Women to ensure the energy sector supported women into middle and senior management roles.

Baroness Sandip Verma

I am Chair of UN Women UK, in this role I am determined to look at how we collectively make safer places for women and girls, calling on the corporate world to help support me.

I served as the Prime Minister’s global champion to tackle violence against women and girls across the world as a minister in DFID. It is so important that women have access to education and financial tools, we must do all we can to remove the barriers that stifle ambition and given we live in an ever evolving technological world, then it is very possible to use new technologies to reduce the inequalities that currently exist.

Holding of politicians to account on delivering and supporting policies that ensure protections and access for all women and girls, to hold employers to account and to help shift mind sets and behaviour that become embedded from when children are born. We must learn to talk up the contributions women and girls make and leaving them out lessens society and communities to grow and benefit.

Baroness Sandip Verma

What, would you say, is the biggest injustice women still face today?

Baroness Verma: I think most women still face difficulties in accessing finance, it is incredibly difficult for women to access the right support and education in financial advice. Being a woman today and balancing all the pressures that modern life imposes on them has become evermore tougher with expectations of working, managing families and ensuring that you stay connected with friends and family.

I have seen a deterioration in how politics whilst pushing for more women into politics the environment in which politics is delivered is aggressive and masculine.

BARONESS SANDIP VERMA

I sadly believe that unless we have women in the decisionmaking process influencing how matters are decided on that impact women then regardless of the progress women will still face injustices at all levels.

How do you balance family life and politics knowing how all-consuming your profession is?

Baroness Verma: I have always managed to balance my priorities and not try and be a superwoman. If it doesn’t get done it isn’t the end of the world. I have always decided on what really matters to me and not get vexed if something is left for another day or for someone else to do.

How can women prioritize their happiness? Was that difficult for you and the women of your generation? To set aside ‘me time’ and put your needs and well being first?

I recently discovered meditation, every morning 15 minutes of focusing on myself. I enjoy working hard but I also enjoy spending time with my family and friends.

BARONESS SANDIP VERMA

I think it is important to have some time set aside for yourself, I think what is most important isn’t the amount of time but the quality of the time you spend on yourself.  

We all experience failures in life but do not talk about them as often as we should. Failure, however, is a valuable teacher. What lessons did you learn from your failures and from your success that you could pass on to other women?

Baroness Verma: Learn to enjoy your failure as much as you relish your success, both give you enormous learning and identifies your strengths and the understanding of where you may need to seek out others whose strengths support yours.

Having a share of a successful business is better than having a whole business that fails to deliver.

Baroness Sandip Verma

I strongly believe that self belief, confidence and ambition are key components that as women we sometimes fail to see in ourselves, fearing failure stops many of us from trying. Find people that will support you through the highs and lows, great mentors, great stories of others that have managed to succeed are out there.

Did Margaret Thatcher break that glass ceiling for all other women who want to run for a public office or do you still feel that, as a woman, to this day, you have to prove yourself and curve out your lane?

Baroness Verma: I think Margaret Thatcher showed as a determined women she could do it.

Politics is tough, and at times can be ugly, especially in a way people interact with each other? What’s your advice for taking a high-road?

Baroness Verma: Get in and make a difference, don’t join the club to retain the status quo but change the way the club operates, looks and sounds.

Nevena Bridgen
Nevena Bridgen

Founder

Nevena Bridgen is the Founder of The Wives of Westminster. She is an opera singer and a wife of MP Andrew Bridgen.

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