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Don't worry about the glass ceiling -- the basement is flooding, says Laurie Penny

Let's not pretend that a few more skirt suits in the palaces of finance will deliver the change that women need.

The world is going wild for lady bankers. For the first time, a woman, Christine Lagarde, is in charge of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), her tender hand stewarding the institution away from the testosterone-sodden tenancy of Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

Meanwhile, the press is profiling high-ranking female executives, such as the Facebook chief, Sheryl Sandberg, and a new campaign group, the 30 Per Cent Club, is working to increase the representation of women in FTSE 100 company boardrooms from around 13 per cent to just under a third.

It is implied that doing so will turn banking into a caring industry, in which profits soar like bluebirds in corridors that ring with the clatter of Manolos on marble. There are three distinct problems with this hypothesis.

The first is that it's arrant twaddle, based on cod science and lazy stereotypes. The 30 Per Cent Club's claim that companies with more women bosses tend to perform better wasn't pulled out of thin air but it hasn't been proven that this is because women's pink and squishy brains make them more careful investors, as the pseudoscience of "neuroeconomics" suggests -- it could simply be that more progressive companies tend to hire more women.

Sexism is rife in the City of London. The Fawcett Society's Sexism in the City campaign in 2008 drew attention to a culture of unequal pay, disregard for the practicalities of childcare, laddish posturing and business deals done in strip clubs.

Yet it is ludicrous to suggest, as many have done, that if we were to temper the big, bad boy's world of business with a few more fragrant females, then these institutions would suddenly become a force for good.

Lagarde can certainly work a pencil skirt -- the Observer's gushing profile heralded her as "the world's sexiest woman" -- but that won't stop the IMF imposing austerity measures across the eurozone that will leave many unemployed and destitute.

The second problem with this obsession with female representation in business is its cynicism. Speaking on 5 July at a seminar organised by the 30 Per Cent Club, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, suggested that "more diverse boards are better boards" because they "outperform their male-dominated rivals".

As Minister for Women and Equalities, May should know that we pursue equality in the workplace because it's good for women, not because it's good for business.

Trying to justify feminism on the basis of profit is dangerous because, at its root, feminism is pretty bad for business. Maternity provisions, equal pay, higher taxes to finance a welfare state that supports hard-working mothers -- all of these things cost money and affect returns.

May recognised this in December 2010, when she scrapped the Labour government's plans to compel employers to publish equal-pay audits -- a move that was applauded by the City of London.

The third problem with this "trickle-down" feminism is that giving women more power at the top of the socio-economic pile does not necessarily increase the power of women at the bottom of the heap.

Ensuring that a slightly larger minority of females get to wield power in finance does next to nothing for the cause of women's liberation, because the real issue is not that women have too little power in business but that business has too much power. Three years of global economic meltdown have dispelled the liberal delusion that making life easier for the men and women in the boardrooms of London and Wall Street makes life easier for everyone else.

Trickle-down feminism is as nonsensical a liberation strategy as trickle-down wealth redistribution. The problem with a glass ceiling is that nothing trickles down. While we all worry about the glass ceiling, there are millions of women standing in the basement -- and the basement is flooding.

There is nothing wrong with personal ambition. After all, if equality means anything, it means the right for a woman to be as much of a ruthless, power-hungry bastard as any man and to be judged accordingly.

Let's not pretend, however, that a few more skirt suits in the palaces of finance will deliver the change that women need.

This post was written with the help of Zoe Stavri.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Promoted by Janus Henderson

Europe: as the politics subside

How long can a resurgence of investor interest in Europe last?

Might Europe be the place to be?

I think European equities tick a lot of the right boxes right now. Economies are recovering – indeed the first quarter of 2017 saw Europe once more grow faster than the US, having outpaced the world’s largest economy in 2016. Valuations are not excessive, either relative to the region’s history or the US equity market. Like almost anything, I believe European equities also look compelling relative to bonds. The final part of the jigsaw puzzle might have been earnings growth, but here too Europe is, at last, getting close to achieving a gold star.

Most of this has been known for quite a few months now and is part of the explanation for the better performance of Europe year to date. Even the euro has strengthened against the US dollar, from about $1.05 at the start of 2017 to $1.12 at the time of writing. Politics looks more settled, after the surprises of the Brexit vote last year in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the US Presidential election. Perhaps a comment I made at the beginning of 2017, that “by the end of 2017 the UK and the US might look to have been the exceptions” when it comes to successful populist votes, seems more prescient.

Now that the political backdrop is perhaps more settled, with the UK’s potentially tragic Brexit decision an exception, how long can a resurgence of interest in Europe last? One threat is the gradual move towards ‘tapering’ by the European Central Bank (ECB) of its unprecedented quantitative easing program, and the support this provides economies by injecting cash to drive down the cost of borrowing and increase consumer and business spending. But it is already clear that this will be a very slow process. The economic recovery in Europe remains quite slow and inflation, outside the UK, is well below the ECB’s target of ‘below or close to’ 2%. At the same time, the damaging effect of negative interest rates needs to be avoided.

 

What could derail this market?

The one exception to what looks to be a relatively rosy scenario, in my view, remains the UK. The Brexit ball is rolling onwards, following the invocation of the now infamous Article 50, but the calling of a General Election was another distraction. The UK is still no closer to knowing what sort of Brexit is desirable, or more likely, economically feasible. Once the reality of debt, demographics and a weak currency become clear, I suspect that the UK market will continue to struggle against other European peers.

Elsewhere in Europe, economies look well set, and I suspect that more capital spending and investment are likely to be incentivised with tax cuts in Europe, again outside the UK. In this scenario, those capital investment-related names such as Siemens, Legrand and Atlas Copco should continue to do well. Luxury names, and auto makers, many of which have rallied hard so far in 2017, are likely to struggle due to subdued consumer demand. Financials have also seen mixed performance so far, with insurance underperforming banks. This seems an anomaly given the paramount importance of long-term savings to cater for retirement.

It would be entirely healthy for European markets to drift through what will hopefully be a quiet summer, without shocks such as Brexit to contend with. I think all seems well set though for European markets to trade higher than current levels by the end of 2017.

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