Paula Dillon, the first woman to hold the office and a partner at law firm Womble Bond Dickinson, used her inaugural address at the chamber’s annual dinner to call for more women in leadership roles to help inspire youngsters to take up the opportunities presented by a growing economy.
Ms Dillon also said it was time for the region to “get its act together” on devolution to tap into economic gains that flow from agreeing settlements with Whitehall.
Speaking at the Black Tie event at Leeds’s Royal Armouries Museum, Ms Dillon called upon business leaders in the city to back plans to improve the redevelopment and infrastructure at Leeds Bradford Airport and the movement to host “a year of cultural celebration” in lieu of the planned Capital of Culture bid for 2023 which can no longer go ahead due to the withdrawal of support from the European Commission.
On the subject of female leaders Ms Dillon told the dinner: “I hope that seeing women in leadership positions will encourage others, of all ages, to be economically active and take the opportunities which a growing economy can offer.
“That is especially true in the STEM professions, where women are still massively under-represented and I believe that it is partly because of a lack of visible role models. We know that lots of women are out there, and I have to tell you that we will be coming to find you and get your stories across to women and girls to encourage them along the same track.”
To underline her point about changing attitudes and perceptions, the president recounted an anecdote from early in her career in which she was told: “Paula dear, if you continue to insist upon this nonsense of being called Ms it will hold you back in your career, everyone will assume you are a lesbian.”
She added: “Having served on 6 boards, had a fantastic legal career and become your president, I can only wonder how well I might have done in life, if I had only called myself Miss or Mrs. So, for that reason and so many others, being part of an organisation, and a city, which is diverse and inclusive, is immensely important to me.”
In her speech Ms Dillon described the importance of apprenticeships as “critical” and said that the national British Chamber of Commerce was looking at what can be done to assuage the large drop in apprenticeships which has followed the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy.
She also stressed the chamber’s commitment to neighbouring Bradford being given a station on the proposed Northern Powerhouse Rail scheme and for members to back both the airport and the culture bid.
“The airport’s expansion plans, and the infrastructure improvements needed to realise them, deserve all our support and, again, please have a look at them and give them your own individual show of support.
“We are also immensely supportive of the Council’s determination to replace the European Capital of Culture with our own cultural festival and all the members I have discussed it with have been unanimous in their enthusiasm for seeing it happen.”
The Chamber has also selected Leeds Mind as its chosen charity this year.
Leeds Mind provides services and support for people who are affected by mental health difficulties in Leeds, and will also work with employers who want to provide support for their workforce.