Laura Tyson: A Democrat in exile... One woman's journey from White House to London

The Interview: Dean of the London Business School
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Professor Laura Tyson is mid croissant when she opens her office door. In true business-superwoman fashion, she had no time for the healthy breakfast she had promised herself so is grabbing a quick bite between meetings.

Only Ms Tyson is not your conventional City executive. No, the petite American brushing crumbs from her jacket is the dean of the London Business School, home to wannabe fat cats from around the globe. Since she also takes on work for our government, sits on the board of two think-tanks, writes a weekly economics column, oh, and stays in touch with her former life in Washington (where she was President Clinton's most senior female adviser), meals on the run are part and parcel of her average day.

"This summer I decided I was working 150 per cent of my time, so I thought maybe I needed to reduce it to, like, 125 per cent," she says. Life, for the 58-year-old academic, is a "balancing act" between her full-time day job and her avowed true love: public policy.

If the Democrats had won last November, Ms Tyson would have very different demands on her time. As the one-time national economic advisor to President Clinton, she looked a shoo-in for a senior post in a Kerry administration, possibly even Treasury Secretary. Right now, for instance, she would probably be worrying about the policy storm whipped up by Hurricane Katrina and designing an economic recovery programme for an area the size of Britain in America's Deep South.

Unusually, for an economics professor, she doesn't see the Katrina's after-effects in macroeconomic terms. "It's so much more the scale of the tragedy and the public policy it raises," she says, in her nondescript Yankee accent. "Shouldn't the US be investing more in its infrastructure? Has the National Guard been too weakened by being moved into the way in Iraq, which is really not their primary responsibility? And what should the US be doing about the problems of the balance of income distribution? These are really poor people and the US does not have adequate," deep sigh, "health, pensions, education, welfare nets.... We do not have a system that serves such people well even in the absence of a disaster of this scale."

But George W's re-election put paid to Ms Tyson's return to Washington, leaving the dean to notch up her fourth year at LBS.

In the City, Ms Tyson is best known for her 2003 report into how to break the old boy stranglehold on UK company boards. "The DTI [Department of Trade and Industry] had this expression, 'male, pale, stale'. You know, old, male, white," she says. Ducking her initial brief of suggesting which 100 individuals from outside the Square Mile might make good non-executive fodder, she instead opted to focus on the less controversial issue of how to increase diversity in UK boardrooms.

Two years on, and observers argue little has changed. Take Wm Morrison's appointment this week of Paul Manduca, the fund-management veteran, as its fifth non-executive director. Hardly explosive stuff.

But Ms Tyson, herself an independent director on three boards, counters. "More and more, board appointments are done in a rigorous way, rather than sitting round the table in an old-boy network kind of way, saying, 'Do you know of anybody who should be on the board?'."

Yet granted that LBS presumably churns out exactly the sort of ready-made networks that will turn up on FTSE boards at some point, isn't Ms Tyson just compounding the issue? "While the complexion of business students at LBS may be less female than it should be, it's certainly not particularly pale. And we're training the business leaders of tomorrow which I hope means these people won't be stale too soon either," she says laughing, "so we're handling two parts of the problem."

Where she concedes there is an issue is over the limited female gene pool within even the LBS itself. "It continues to be a source of both frustration and confusion - maybe befuddlement is the right word - about why more women don't apply to business school." In the US, where business school is practically the norm for a certain strata of society, up to one-third of a class can be female - 40 per cent in a particularly good year. But in Britain - and Europe - business schools are lucky if one in five of its students is female.

"This reflects application trends. It's not true that women who apply are disproportionately not accepted. If anything, it's the opposite," she says, leaning forward in her chair. As she warms to what is clearly a pet topic, she lists numerous reasons as to why business school is just not high up on your average female "to do" list. Most of her explanations are pecuniary - women don't earn enough, either with or without an MBA, to justify splashing a cool £30,000 and up on a piece of paper.

The economist in her comes out when she starts talking about "gender bias and gender preference" when asked why more women don't rise to the top. The nuances escape me slightly, although, broadly, bias is a politically correct version of sexual discrimination and preference has to do with whether it's more sensible to want a life with a family or to be paid off for signing your prime away to the suits at the top of your firm.

She adds: "We have a problem because the words that come to mind when you think about leadership are not the words that come to mind when you think about women. The words you associate with leadership tend to be very masculine words, such as aggression, strong, ambitious, controlling. When you say those words about women they tend to have a negative image."

Chicly dressed in a slim-fitting cream T-shirt, with fashionably chunky beads, navy trousers and a cream jacket, Ms Tyson may consider herself an executive, but she hardly fits the masculine stereotype. How, then, would she describe herself, I ask? "I wouldn't say I'm any of those. I would use the words President Clinton used about me. He said I was 'unfailingly frank and open'. Most of what I do is advising so I have to be frank and clear in my opinions," she says.

It is hardly surprising that she has bowed to the opinion of her mentor since it's clear from her office that she still thinks very highly of him. My Life, President Clinton's autobiography, lies on a sideboard, next to numerous pictures of herself and the former President, which also adorn the walls. He was, she says, "a brilliant guy, a brilliant speaker, a wonderful politician".

Given the chance, it's clear she'd jump at an invitation to return to the White House. "I've thought from the beginning that this administration was wrong-headed and God knows I've certainly seen nothing to make me change that opinion," she says.

But for now, she's happy enough to work round-the-clock in London (she has no time for hobbies), where she is looking forward to the imminent arrival of her 22-year-old son, who starts a masters degree in media and politics at the London School of Economics next week. "He's very interested in politics. I'm afraid I've done that to him," she laughs.

A global agenda

Age: 58

Position: Dean, London Business School

Salary: £310,000

Education: Smith College, Massachusetts, and then a PhD in economics at MIT.

Career: Joined Princeton University's economics department in 1974; moved to University of California, Berkeley, where she still has tenure, in 1977. Served in the Clinton administration from January 1993 to 1996, including as national economic advisor for the last 18 months. Sits on boards of Morgan Stanley, Eastman Kodak and SBS Communications.

Hobbies: "I do not actually have much spare time. I use it to work." Yoga (once a week), watching films and eating out at new restaurants with her spouse, or reading fiction.

Tyson in her own words

On President Bush's economic agenda:

"Had he made his tax cuts temporary in his first term I could have defended them. They served as an effective, Keynesian stimulus to the economy. Permanent, they were a very bad idea."

On Gordon Brown:

"I am a Brown fan. The whole idea of making the central bank independent was exactly right. The idea of trying to balance the government books over the business cycle is exactly right. And the idea of trying to distinguish the capital budget from the operational budget and then set limits on how much the government should borrow over the business cycle - those are all just basic, sensible principles. A macroeconomist loves those principles."

On former US president Bill Clinton:

"He is a brilliant guy, he's a brilliant speaker, he's a wonderful politician, he has a huge ability to relate to others. His policy instincts are very similar to mine. You couldn't imagine a better person to work for as an economic adviser. I'm very lucky."

On the UK economy:

"You can worry if you go into individual productivity statistics. But my perspective is fairly positive. I think there has been a huge amount of progress in management of British industries. There are certain parts of the economy where you have major global leaders. Pharmaceuticals being one of them."

Comments