Macho culture has been blamed for the banking collapse, leading to the argument that boards need more women to prevent reckless decision-making.
There is a view that the banking crisis that sent Western economies tumbling two years ago may not have happened at all, or would have been less severe, if there had been more women at the top in the banking sector — the argument being that women are more cautious and risk averse and, therefore, more likely than men to challenge the sort of practices that caused the crisis.
Until now, this theory had been pushed mostly by women campaigners while men tended to snigger. But now even men seem to agree. A male-dominated parliamentary committee (13 men and one woman — an ironic comment on Westminster's own attitude to gender diversity) has blamed a macho culture and “potentially dangerous group think” for the collapse of several leading British banks arguing that boards need more women to prevent reckless decision-making.
In a report, highlighting the acute dearth of women at the top in Britain's financial sector, the Treasury Select Committee says that the prevailing male-driven high-risk mindset is not conducive to good “corporate governance”.
“Diversity at the top is one way to challenge potentially dangerous ‘group think',” it says citing some eye-popping statistics to underline deep-seated sexism in the City, London's famous global financial hub.
The committee found that gender-based wage disparity was the worst in the financial sector with full-time women workers earning 55 per cent less than their full-time male colleagues. The pay gap for bonuses and performance related pay was even higher at 80 per cent.
The MPs were scathing about the huge under-representation of women at the board level, especially in the FTSE-listed companies, with women executive directors accounting for only between one to two per cent in the 300-odd top firms. They noted that the number of women on FTSE-100 bank boards actually declined from 13 per cent in 2004 to nine per cent in 2009.
Testifying before the committee, Minister for Women and Equality Harriet Harman accused financial institutions of operating on the basis of an “old boy's network”.
“Too many British boardrooms are still no-go areas for women,” she said prompting the panel to warn City bosses that if they failed to act voluntarily to make boardrooms more diverse and inclusive the government might be forced to step in.
“We believe the lack of diversity on the boards of many, if not most, of our major financial institutions may have made effective challenge and scrutiny of executive decisions less effective,” it said implicitly acknowledging the view that if there had been more women in positions that offered them a chance to “challenge” and “scrutinise” decisions taken by their male colleagues the crisis may have been averted.
However, its chairman John McFall, a senior Labour MP, sought to soften the blow saying: “We are not saying that had women been in charge, the crisis wouldn't have happened, but we are highlighting the fact that women are poorly represented in the financial sector, particularly at senior level.”
Women's groups such as Women for Boards and the City Women's Network believe that positive discrimination, including women's quotas, are the only way to break the male monopoly of boardrooms.
“The City is a bastion of power, traditional male power, and they want to keep women out,” Sasha Roskoff of the women's rights group Object told one newspaper.
The City has always been notoriously sexist and it is reflected in the high number of sex-discrimination cases brought by women against their employers. Most top banks and financial institutions are said to be reluctant to hire women except as tokenism; and those who manage to sneak in anyway face humiliation on daily basis, according to anecdotal evidence. A former investment banker, who left her job in disgust, says that obscene comments, pornographic screen-savers and lewd gestures are common and when women complain they are advised to “learn to manage”.
“Over and over again I wasn't taken seriously,” she said in a newspaper interview claiming that her male colleagues refused to work with her and she was repeatedly overlooked for promotion. During a recruitment drive at one bank, a senior executive was reportedly heard saying that he wanted a “slim blonde”.
And it is not just the City where sexism is rife. Here is what Caroline Lucas, leader of the Green Party, has to say about British Parliament: “We supposedly have ‘The Mother of all Parliaments', and yet we're 69th in the world for the percentage of women we have as part of that Parliament. Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United Arab Emirates have more women in their parliaments. If we keep accruing women to Parliament at the same rate we are doing now, it would take 200 years to have equal representation. That's the same amount of time it would take a snail to walk the Great Wall of China.”
And, as we head for the press, the BBC is embroiled in another of those seasonal controversies about “sexism” at the Beebs after the editor of its flagship Today programme, Ceri Thomas, said that he did not have many women presenters on his staff because it was an “incredibly difficult place to work” for which they were not suited.
“The skill set that you need to work on the Today programme and the hide that you need, the thickness of it, is something else,” he said sparking a furious reaction from his female colleagues and listeners who pointed out that his remarks confirmed that the BBC was still largely male and middle-class — not to mention, of course, white and an Old Boys' network.