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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.

Photo: Getty
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What's going on in Northern Ireland?

Everything you need to know about why Northern Ireland is heading for an early election - and how it all works. 

Northern Irish voters will elect a new government, just seven months after the last election. Here’s what you need to know.

It all starts with something called the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), a scheme designed to encourage businesses to switch to renewable sources of heating, by paying them to do so. But the plan had two flaws. Firstly, there was no upper limit to how much you could receive under the scheme and secondly there was no requirement that the new heaters replace the old.

That led to businesses installing biomass boilers to heat rooms that had previously not been heated, including storage rooms and in some cases, empty sheds.

 The cost of the scheme has now run way over budget, and although the door has been closed to new entrants, existing participants in the scheme will continue collecting money for the next 20 years, with the expected bill for the Northern Irish assembly expected to reach £1bn.  

The row is politically contentious because Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, and the First Minister of Northern Ireland, was head of the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) when the scheme was rolled out, putting her at the heart of the row. Though there is no suggestion that she personally enriched herself or her allies, there are questions about how DETI signed off the scheme without any safeguards and why it took so long for the testimony of whistleblowers to be acted on.

The opposition parties have called for a full inquiry and for Foster to step down while that inquiry takes place, something which she has refused to do. What happened instead is that the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, resigned his post, he said as a result of frustration with the DUP’s instrangience about the scheme.

Under the rules of the devolved assembly (of which, more below), the executive – the ministers tasked with running the government day-to-day must be compromised of politicians drawn from the parties that finish first and second in the vote, otherwise the administration is dissolved.  McGuinesss’ Sinn Fein finished second and their refusal to continue participating in the executive while Foster remains in place automatically triggers fresh elections.

Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote (STV) to elect members of the legislative assembly (MLAs). Under STV, multiple MLAs are elected from a single constituency, to more accurately reflect the votes of the people who live there and, crucially, to prevent a repeat of the pattern of devolved rule under first-past-the-post, when prolonged one-party rule by the Unionist and Protestant majority contributed to a sense of political alienation among the Catholic minority.

Elections are contested across 18 seats, with five MPs elected to every seat. To further ensure that no part of the community is unrepresented in the running of the devolved assembly, the executive, too, is put together with a form of proportional representation. Not only does the executive require a majority in the legislature to pass its business, under a system of “mandatory coalition”, posts on the executive are allocated under the D’Hondt system of proportional representation, with posts on the executive allocated according to how well parties do, with the first party getting first pick, and so on until it comes back to the first party until all the posts are filled.

Although the parties which finish third and lower can opt out of taking their seats on the executive and instead oppose the government, if the first and second party don’t participate in the coalition, there is no government.

As it is highly unlikely that the DUP and Sinn Fein will not occupy the first and second places when the election is over, it is equally unlikely that a second election will do anything other than prolong the chaos and disunity at Stormont. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.