Sometimes the best ideas come from the oddest places. Usually I find Harriet Harman's views on gender batty, but her latest call for more females on the boards of our nationalised banks – and other financial institutions – is not daft at all.
As the Government is a big shareholder in two, RBS and Lloyds Banking Group, it could so easily set an example by telling them to find more top women to make up their boards. Critics say such a move means the Government might get too closely involved in the banks, but I don't share their pessimism.
If the Government does choose to lead by example, and not make a mockery of the process, then it must choose the right women. The best place to look for inspiration would be successful businesses that have female non-executives on the ground, such as Barclays Bank where Patience Wheatcroft, a former financial journalist, has shown herself to be an adept board member. According to fellow directors, her broad business reach has proved invaluable during Barclays' own struggles to raise new capital, and persuade the City that all is well.
You only have to look at last week's first-quarter results to see just how Barclays' strategy of independence has been the right one, and the bank should quite rightly feel vindicated in its determination to stay out of the Government's hands.
I'm not suggesting there is a link, but it is interesting that Barclays has a good history of women at the top – Professor Sandra Dawson of Cambridge University's Judge Business School has just retired as a non-executive; Gay Huey Evans, the former Financial Service Authority director of markets, now runs Barclays' sovereign wealth business; while Ros Stephenson, a Brit who made her mark in New York at Lehman Brothers, is at the top of Barclays Capital.
Pressure for more women on the board has jumped to the top of the agenda because of the financial crisis, with many voices claiming that more females would have prevented some of the most outrageous behaviour during the testosterone-fuelled credit frenzy. I'm not so sure. If you look at companies that went belly up – Northern Rock, RBS, HBOS – the reasons were varied, ranging from overweening ambition (RBS) to incompetent management (HBOS). It is impossible to tell whether having more female directors would have changed this. And recent research from Cambridge University suggests that the more "emotional intelligence" you display, the less effective you are at work.
Businesses want more female directors for much better reasons – they are talented and they represent half the population. But companies also say they don't know where to find them. The Professional Boards Forum's simulated board session for 50 female executives last week was an innovative solution, bringing together the two sides in an unusual way. Organisers say many new relationships were established. As Kathleen O'Donovan, the first finance director of a FTSE company, once told me after her appointment made headlines for days, there will only be "equality" when there are as many mediocre women at the top as there are mediocre men.
Square Mile sits up as Old Etonian trio swing into action at Hanson
What's the collective noun for a group of buccaneering Old Etonians with more corporate broking experience than most of the American usurpers in the City put together? A new Cazenove, perhaps? Or Hoare Govett? That's certainly the message I read into the news last week that Hanson Westhouse, the niche investment boutique, is coming to AIM through a reverse takeover of Jersey-based SovGEM, the Chinese investment trust.
Ex-Cazenove and Rothschilds banker, Bill Staple, chief executive of Hanson Westhouse, has put together a top-notch group of advisers to help him take his investment bank into the big league. Bringing on board three Etonians in one go isn't bad. But when they are of the calibre of Andrew Beeson, founder of the Beeson Gregory stockbroker, Christopher Holdsworth Hunt, co-founder of KBC Peel Hunt, and Peter Meinertzhagen, former chairman of ABN Amro Hoare Govett, you've got to sit up.
Under the new deal, Hanson will be valued at £7m, a tiddler by any standards. But what the listing does for Hanson is to give it not just visibility but also a currency to acquire other brokers should it decide to grow by acquisition. Staple has already looked at buying rival brokers, many of them in turmoil as the markets have plunged, but decided to go the organic route, for now.
Since news of the deal – and the Etonian trio signing – Hanson has had several enquiries from potential clients. It's already cornered the market in London for Chinese listings, including the £300m Chinese ReneSola solar company, and has 30 firms on its books. Tim Metcalfe, the head of corporate finance, tells me this is a great time to expand as competitors fall by the wayside, while Staple's ambition is to recreate an old-style relationship-banking and broking business.
Those American houses had better watch out – the real City is back in action.