Is the glass ceiling cracking in finance?

Women seem to be breaking into the long male-dominated areas of economic policy making and financial regulation. But how real is the apparent shift?

Is that the sound of a glass ceiling for women cracking? This week Sharon White was appointed to be one of the two second permanent secretaries at Her Majesty's Treasury. A veteran civil servant, Ms White becomes the first woman to be formally appointed to such an exalted role in the Finance ministry.

She will have responsibility for managing the public finances and implementing George Osborne's on-going fiscal consolidation. Ms White is married to Robert Chote, the head of the independent Office for Budget Responsibility (which is supposed to mark the Treasury's books) so that should make for some interesting, perhaps even awkward, supper time conversations.

But Ms White's elevation also seems to symbolise a wider shift in which women are taking a more prominent role in economic policymaking and financial regulation – an arena of public life which has long been male dominated.

Across London at the Bank of England, Charlotte Hogg was appointed chief operating officer when Mark Carney became Governor in July. It is the first time the Bank has had a COO and Ms Hogg's status and remuneration are reported to be equivalent to Mr Carney's three formal deputy governors.

Ms Hogg is shaking things up. Last month she appointed her old employers, the management consultancy firm McKinsey, to review the central bank's operation with a view to cutting waste at the 319-year-old institution. Another senior female figure at Threadneedle Street is Jenny Scott, the former BBC journalist, whom Mr Carney appointed as his personal adviser upon taking office.

In regulation, too, women seem increasingly to be in senior roles. Tracey McDermott, the director of enforcement and financial crime at the Financial Conduct Authority, has been the public face of the drive to expose abuse in the City from interest rate rigging to insider trading for more than a year. Laura Carstensen of the Competition Commission led the recent contentious investigation into audit firms. Even the world of statistics has some women in senior roles. As the UK's National Statistician, Jil Matheson was charged earlier this year with handling the intensely market-sensitive question of whether to scrap the retail prices index.

The ceremonial side of the City of London seems to be reflecting this gender shift too. Fiona Woolf, the incoming Lord Mayor of the City of London, will this month become only the second woman to hold that role in 800 years.

But has there really been a movement to greater gender equality in public policy finance and economics? The raw figures point to progress. In the Treasury, 10 years ago just 15 per cent of Treasury employees were women. Today the proportion has reached 47 per cent. At the Bank of England 43 per cent of staff are female, a proportion that has been rising, according to Threadneedle Street.

But there is also more work to be done before it will be possible to talk of true gender equality at either institution. The finance ministry admitted in its most recent annual report that the representation of women at senior levels actually declined from 46 per cent to 43 per cent between 2012 and 2013. The proportion of female Bank of England managers has hit 32 per cent, but that leaves two-thirds of the central bank's senior workforce as male. And the Bank of England's nine-member Monetary Policy Committee has had no female representation since Kate Barker left in 2010.

There is a solitary woman – Clara Furse – on the Financial Policy Committee. There were believed to be no women on the shortlist for the Governorship.

Ms White said in an interview last year that women in the past had been put off from applying for senior roles at the finance ministry, describing the Treasury's management board as "a bit of a closed shop, which becomes self-reinforcing, putting women off from applying". She also pointed out that economics as a profession was still heavily male dominated.

That suggests the roots of the problem of under-representation go deep. University economics courses are still dominated by male undergraduates. And women make up only a quarter of academic staff in economics departments, according to the Royal Economic Society.

This means that fewer qualified women enter the public policymaking sector in the first place, making the pool of promotable female talent smaller.

Perhaps some prominent role models will help to alter this. Ms White is herself now a senior figure on the Treasury's management committee. She has the power to make the body more welcoming.

Meanwhile, in the United States Janet Yellen – a distinguished policy-maker and academic economist – will soon take up her post as head of the US Federal Reserve, the world's most important monetary authority.

To secure the appointment she saw off Larry Summers, the veteran economic policymaker who once suggested that women might be under-represented in the sciences because of a "different availability of aptitude at the high end".

What better signal than Ms Yellen's triumph could there be to women everywhere that there is no limit on how high they can rise if they have the talent and determination?

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Ashdown Group: Market Research Executive

£23000 - £26000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Market Research Executive...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Report Writer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Technical Report Writer is re...

MBDA UK Ltd: Indirect Procurement Category Manager

Competitive salary & benefits!: MBDA UK Ltd: MBDA UK LTD Indirect Procurement...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - PHP

£16500 - £16640 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing Finance compa...

Day In a Page

Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

Pot of gold

Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore