The higher they fly, the harder they fall

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Indy Lifestyle Online
When powerful executive women get the sack, they hit the headlines as men rarely do. Their private lives and personal style get as much attention as the profit warnings. Whose fault is that, Ann Treneman asks.

Ann Iverson was fired this week as chief executive of Laura Ashley for failing to rescue the struggling company. I report this to you just in case you may have missed it amid the acres of space devoted to other aspects of the story. Like the fact that Ann is 53, a chain-smoker and has been married four times. Like the fact that she is flame-haired, aggressive and a workaholic.

She is guilty of many crimes. The Daily Mail reports that she has "built up a reputation for silky-voiced aggression and a ruthless attitude to dissent from subordinates". The Telegraph reveals that she is a "one-time" rodeo rider. But the worst crime of all is that this summer she appeared in Vogue wearing a black leather coat and "little else". In another outrageous act, The Times reports, she "crooned" in the caption: "All those City guys love to think of me in black leather, so I may as well live up to expectations."

Yesterday Ms Iverson was not to be found. She was not talking. I don't blame her, but I'd love to hear what she thinks of the glee in which her downfall has been reported. When powerful men fail, the facts are dutifully reported. When powerful women do the same, it is a case of the Wonderwoman who crashed to earth.

"It's just misogyny," comments one female journalist. Some colleagues agree, others beg to differ. They point out that she did fail rather spectacularly and that she was too optimistic, over-expanded and left a company rumoured to be on the point of collapse. None of this is in dispute. Ann Iverson was paid more than pounds 1m last year to do a job that she failed to do. But what does this have to do with crooning and flame hair? What is being questioned - and what needs to be - is the way in which the media report on women of achievement.

This is a subject that unites the small group of women who have made it somewhere near the top of their various professions. Nicola Horlick may be many things but there is no doubt that she was naive in her expectations of how the press would cover her sacking as head of Deutsche Morgan Grenfeld's pounds 18bn pension fund business. She says that if she were a man, the press would not have been camped outside her house while she was inside trying to breastfeed her baby and she is probably right.

Such women are never portrayed as what they really are, either. Horlick instantly became Superwoman although in fact she was a businesswoman with a nanny. When the news broke that Christine Walker, one of the most powerful women in advertising, is fighting a court battle with her former employers, she was called a "media mother" in headlines. Would a man have been called a "media father"? (Would anyone even understand what those words together could mean?) "Newspapers always try to get a human interest spin if it is a woman," said Ms Walker yesterday. "If a man does something he isn't described as a Superman who is married with two children."

Last year the group Women in Journalism conducted a survey of how the press covers such women. I helped to conduct this research, which involved lots of reading (as well as measuring) the coverage afforded to women and men involved in similar news stories. Specific cases included the defections of MPs Alan Howarth and Emma Nicholson and the mountaineering deaths of Alison Hargreaves and Geoff Tier.

The results were overwhelming. Emma Nicholson was called menopausal and a Wicked Witch for daring to switch her allegiance from the Tories to the Liberal Democrats. Alan Howarth was portrayed as a moral crusader acting out the highest possible principles. The death of mountaineer and mother Alison Hargreaves attracted some 800 paragraphs of coverage, the death of mountaineer and father Geoff Tier garnered 20.

The press, when confronted, admits the error of its ways. This, for instance, was some of the reaction to the Women in Journalism survey. "As the Duchess of York will doubtless agree, when women become hate figures in the press, coverage of their downfall is not just hostile but downright poisonous," said no less an expert than the Evening Standard. The Guardian weighed in as well: "The day may shortly come when tired old hacks pumping out babes by numbers actually become a financial liability to a medium that desperately needs to keep hold of its declining audience."

But for high-flying women, that day seems far away. Clare Spottiswoode, Director General of Gas Supply, has lived to tell this tale: "At various times I have been likened in the press to Boudicca and Annie Oakley and been called mumsy, the "laughing regulator" and described as resembling Ingrid Bergman on a bad hair day. I have even had my character and competence assessed in an article based solely on the floral print of my dress."

This is the kind of thing that Ann Iverson - who, of course, met her downfall in a company devoted to floral dresses - can relate to as she figures out what to do with her pounds 450,000 payoff and her tattered career. She also might wonder if there is any way she could have played it differently. Did she, in some way, invite such headlines as yesterday's in the Mail that said "Ruthless? Ask the four husbands she has `sacked'". Could she have done something to stop the speculation about her love life, her rodeo past, her aggressive ways...

The answer, probably, is no. There are very few female high- flyers who could have escaped such a spectacular sacking without similar coverage. Perhaps the exception is one woman in the news today: Carol Galley of Mercury Asset Management likes to keep a low profile and rarely speaks out on anything not pertaining directly to business. But not all women want to do this - though it is something of which someone like Barbara Cassani should take note.

Ms Cassani was chosen this week to head British Airlines' new low-cost carrier. News reports have already told us she is as feminine as she is feisty and a charming mother of two. Like Ann Iverson, she is American. I doubt whether she'll be posing in Vogue though. "I won't be jumping out of a cake at the launch party," she told reporters. But perhaps it wouldn't matter if she did. When it comes to the female of the species, the press is as deadly as the women are said to be.

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