Saturday 21 March 2009
Deborah Orr: Can women save the economy? At least give us a chance to try
Fern Britton, the television presenter, raised cheers – and a few boos – on Question Time the other night when she suggested that Britain's financial crisis would not have occurred if women had been in charge. It's not quite as simple as that, of course. But the gist of her argument is already in the mainstream.
In France, it has been noted that BNP Paribas, with a 39 per cent female management team, has weathered the storm far better that Crédit Agricole, whose team was 16 per cent female. In Iceland, Kristjan Kristjansson, a spokesman for the new female Prime Minister, Johanna Sigurdardottir, made no bones about the same matter. "Men, especially young men," she said, "have made a mess of things." The administration has acted on its observations, and put women in charge of two of the big banks that brought the country's economy to collapse.
In Britain, feminist politicians including Harriet Harman and Hazel Blears have been quick to make the same point. They are backed by a number of male industry insiders. One, Howard Archer, conceded: "Something needs to change. You can argue that the men have made a right mess of it, and now the ladies should have a go." Another, Stuart Fraser, admitted: "There are quite a lot of alpha males with testosterone streaming out of their ears."
Fraser is absolutely right. They can't help it, the poor loves. It's their hormones. Tests have shown that traders who start the day with higher levels of testosterone than average make higher profits in that day (or used to). And swabbing the saliva of a group of students at Harvard, then unleashing them on a high-stakes card game showed that those with the most testosterone in their spit always took the biggest risks. Those guys weren't called "masters of the universe" or "big swinging dicks" for nothing.
It has been obvious for many years that the culture of the City is exaggeratedly macho and virulently anti-women. The few women who do make it in that world have to make many compromises – and not just by tagging along to lap-dancing clubs or snorting as much coke as the boys. A survey conducted by the Cranfield School of Management found that half of women in senior positions in investment banking – average age 42 – had no children, while a quarter of those who did had stay-at-home husbands.
Across three European countries, it was found that the pattern was the same. Among the 50 per cent of women who did have children, most had only one. Just 18 per cent of women in investment banking had two or more children, compared with 60 per cent of men. Many of the latter had partners who did not work. I'm told that it had become a status symbol among City men to have many children. It was another extravagant way of parading inexhaustible wealth.
The divorce specialist Mishcon de Reya reported a huge upsurge in inquiries about divorce, as the recession began to bite in the City. Some were from men, asking what would happen to their redundancy pay in the event of a split. But a lot were from women who, it can only be assumed, preferred their men to be off at the office making money, while they stayed at home spending it.
It's only fair to note that plenty of women were more than happy to share the spoils when the good times were still rolling. In fact, in a number of high-profile divorce cases in recent years, female commentators have been quick to express their disgust at greedy, gold-digging females who used the legal system to wring obscene amounts of "hard-earned" cash out of their exes.
Likewise, many City women were appalled enough when their firms conspired unfairly against them to launch sexual discrimination cases. Such a large proportion eventually agreed to accept large sums of money in return for their silence that the culture was never challenged in the manner that it should have been. I don't blame them, particularly. But the trend illustrates that it is as futile to argue that women are uniformly dedicated to the common weal, and immune to the temptations of hard cash, as it is to assert that the opposite is true of men.
Until a short time ago, the City was allowed to act as it pleased, with little scrutiny. Now it is being scrutinised all right, but still as if it is an exceptional part of society rather than the hyper-concentrated microcosm of wider values that it was and is. It is a perilous mistake to cling to the idea that the meltdown in the City was an aberration.
This recession is the first we have faced since women gained some measure of equality in the workplace. Even in the City, after all, there are just as many female new graduate recruits as men. The macho values that drive them out are underpinned by the idea that your children are people you don't need to have much to do with as long as you're bringing in the bacon. This is the basic problem that we have wrestled with since industrialisation began.
Yet even as the collapse of the economy is being hailed as a warning against the perils of allowing machismo to stampede unhampered, old orthodoxies are driving contemporary decisions. Across the developed world the figures suggest that women are being "let go" in greater proportion than men, while female graduates are finding it even harder to get positions than their male counterparts. The old idea that women work for pin money, with a man in the background doing the real earning, prevails.
It is easy to lose skills during a downturn. Even as we cheer at the acknowledgement that equality in the workplace is desirable and sensible, we sabotage that hard-won insight, lessening the likelihood of increasing the number of female managers in the next generation.
Baz casts his weird and wonderful spell again
No, I just can't help it. I've simply never seen a Baz Luhrmann movie that I haven't liked. I saw Strictly Ballroom on the only occasion that I've been to the Cannes Film Festival, and I've been hooked ever since. Even Moulin Rouge, which many people think was an absolutely turkey, appeared to my eyes like a masterpiece. But the reviews I saw of Australia made the film sound so impossibly hammy and absurd that even I decided that I had to give it a miss.
A shameful encounter with a curiously premature DVD has forced me to decide that I was a fool to question my faith. Luhrmann's films always explain why the best films are magical and transporting, however weirdly he gets that across. It can't be denied that Australia was weird. But that was part of its comedy and charm.
Luhrmann's wonderfully original sensibility can only be to do with his own early experience as a viewer of movies. His father ran a garage and a cinema in a tiny rural enclave in New South Wales. Outback Australia is so otherworldly anyway, that to live in it and watch the Technicolor flicker of fantasy so regularly must have been a double-whammy of bewitching unreality. That quality is always present in his work.
Out of the mouths of babes ...
*Even my seven-year-old has recession fever. "What do kids say when Gordon Brown asks them what they're going to be when they grow up?" he asked the other day. "Hugely in debt, thanks to you" was the answer. Anyway, it got me thinking, and not just "Oh my God, my child is a prodigy like no other". Why is money being given directly to the banks, when instead it could be given directly to us, on the condition that we don't take it out of the bank for 20 years? We could even be warned that there might be a hefty tax on it when we finally are allowed to withdraw it.
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