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9 October 2008

The missing women

A stronger female presence in the top banking jobs might have made a difference

By Alice Miles

I couldn’t help noticing, on the morning after the world’s economy imploded – when Congress rejected the bailout bill the first time around – that there wasn’t a single female voice on the Today programme in the prime hour between 8am and 9am. Not one: not a presenter, nor a politician, not a reporter, banker, or economist. I idly counted 25 male voices during that hour. And not a single woman. Well actually, there was one woman: we heard a clip from a film in an item about the movie industry – a woman was heard going weak at the knees at the sound of a man. Male voice: “We won!” Female voice, adoringly: “I know, darling!”

As the crisis rages, I remain astonished at how easily women have accepted being pushed to the sidelines, or reduced to the stereotype of adoring woman, silly girl or bitch. Who did the congressmen who first voted out the rescue package find to blame? Nancy Pelosi. A woman! Silly bitch. Yet all Pelosi had done was point out the obvious: that fiscal irresponsibility and an anything-goes economic policy have brought us here, the same message that George Osborne delivered to applause at the Conservative party conference on the same day.

Female voices have on the whole been startlingly absent during the economic meltdown. Yet I don’t believe this is all the fault of the media: if the broadcasters are anything like the newspapers, they will be falling over themselves to find women prepared to speak about the implosion of the banking system. But as in politics, so, it seems, in economics: women claim either not to be interested or, more likely, incompetent to comment.

As a result, just as a crisis created largely by men comes to a head, women are being pushed further to the margins. In an article in the Times on 30 September, Matthew Syed suggested that we should feminise the City in order to avoid another catastrophe such as the present one. He quoted Julia Noakes, a psychologist working with City high-achievers: “The problem in finance is that there is too much thrusting individualism and not enough femininity. A lot of women are deterred from striving for senior management positions because they don’t want to deny 50 per cent of their personalities.”

And a City headhunter, Heather McGregor, observed that “the UK bank that has come out of the current crisis strongest is the one that has most aggressively promoted women into positions of senior management: Lloyds TSB”.

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Syed’s conclusion? The problems are systemic, driven by a male-dominated ethos that includes “a dizzying disregard for risk”. The problem, he says, is that “the market became too primal, too dominated by men and their baser instincts, too preoccupied with greed and too little with the consequences”.

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I am so glad he wrote that and not me: any glance at the messageboards of the national papers will show you that women who dare to criticise men (or their pet projects, such as Trident) are bombarded with aggressive, misogynistic – often anonymous – hate-mail. It’s another form of male bullying that shocks every woman who starts to write in the national comment pages. Until they get used to it.

How did our public debate become so male-dominated? From the economist to the politician, the presenter to the commentator – it is as if women are happy to sit in the shadows and let men do all the talking and the shouting. This even though it is men, in an overwhelmingly male-dominated economic system, who have created the crisis. Nine in ten places in Britain’s boardrooms are filled by men.

There is, as Syed recognised, a difference in the female brain. We are more cautious with money. We are the budgeters, housekeepers, makers and carers. A woman is more interested in value than in price.

It is no coincidence that the socially valuable professions – nursing, teaching, social care – are dominated by women. And it is no coincidence that in the current, male-dominated political system, these are the lowest-paid sectors.

Meanwhile Gordon Brown repeats, like a crazed mantra, that he will take Firm Decisions. That kind of posturing doesn’t cut it with women. The housekeeping purse is empty: we understand that. If every saver in the country called upon the government’s promise to underwrite their savings, how could it pay?

The British political system is getting worse, not better. The central circles of the Conservative and Labour parties are all male. The macho bullies who surrounded Brown, happily sidelined in the reshuffle, have long turned off every woman who encountered them. It is no coincidence that the open rebellion against the Prime Minister was led by women. Ruth Kelly has left the cabinet because she realised her family was worth more than this. Just as we need more women in it, the House of Commons is turning more male. Women Labour MPs are disproportionately more likely than men to lose their seats at the next election, and the larger the Conservative majority, the less likely that Conservative gains will make up for it.

Didn’t the Labour conference coo when Sarah Brown did her “my lovely husband” act? Didn’t the media go weak at the knees? And wouldn’t they all have hated it if she had done anything more political than give adoring support to Brown? Women as much as men: we carp, we criticise, we bitch – we hate the ambitious female colleague, the manipulative one, the one who gets by on connections. Yet we expect men to do just that. It is a design fault in a system that has been set up to reward male values and not female ones, which merits argument over consensus, money over value, destruction over nurture. And we play straight into its hands.

But I guess if women allow the political and economic space to be dominated by men we get what we deserve. It’s a shame, though, because this crisis in the global financial system ought to be an opportunity for women. In Norway, 40 per cent of company board membership has to be female. Spain has introduced similar measures; Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands are considering quotas. We could make it happen here in the UK – if women fought for it and refused to vote for any party that doesn’t promise to change the law. It’s a bit like demanding the vote all over again.

Alice Miles is a columnist for the Times