Here we go again. A civil lawsuit of huge significance is being fought in the High Court – a case that will determine the relative responsibilities of those who manage your pension fund and mine, and the companies that give them their business. The only reason that we are hearing about it is because the chief antagonists are both – wait for it – women.
It goes without saying, of course, that they are also "hard-driving," "humourless", "single-minded" women whose every waking hour is scheduled to the last fraction of a second. True, we have not (yet) been treated to headlines about a "cat-fight", but "tigers" have been mentioned. That is what four decades of feminism have achieved.
Giving evidence for the multinational conglomerate, Unilever, last week was Ms Wendy Mayall, the chief investment manager for her company's multimillion-pound pension funds. Ms Mayall avoided the worst of the publicity that commonly attends public appearances by high-profile women thanks to a few simple techniques that every professional female would do well to acquire.
People in court said that she seemed to bumble through her testimony, (though, we should be relieved to learn, without actually giving away any legal points). She wore the same low-key, dark-coloured trouser-suits day after day. She gave no hint of aspiring to a future career as a Vogue cover-girl, and made no fuss about being styled "Ms".
Nor, it has to be said, did Carol Galley, co-chairman of Merrill Lynch Investment Managers, who took the stand yesterday to defend her handling of Unilever's account. But Miss Galley's stylish coiffing and dressing – subtle highlights, a different (skirt) suit each day, some impressive jewellery and immaculate grooming - drew attention none the less. Headlines used her City soubriquet, the "ice-maiden", pointing out that she earned £6m in one year (1996) and must now be worth a cool £15m, and cited not only her reluctance to figure in Who's Who, but her insistence on being styled – quite correctly, given that Galley is her maiden name – not Ms, but Miss Carol Galley.
The tone has been set. In the next three or four days that she will be giving evidence effectively in defence of her formidable reputation, Miss Galley will be scrutinised by the media as much for how she looks and sounds as for what she says.
Like Mrs Thatcher, Miss Galley has committed the arch-sins of being not just a highly successful woman, but one who has beaten many men at their own game. A rarity in the upper echelons of the male-dominated City, she attracts all the opprobrium that sticks to this type of success, including the barely disguised suggestion that her material success is somehow undeserved and that she is somehow not as nice a person as a woman should be.
There is no need to rehearse the experience of Nicola Horlick, whose dual role as famously successful fund manager and earth mother brought the wrath of City men crashing down on her. Nor to point out how few women in male-dominated sectors actually attain the rank of senior management, let alone posts where the bonuses run to £1m.
There is a view (held by men) that women tend to do well in fund-management because these jobs allow them to control the hours they work and because the profits that accrue are not necessarily proportional to the time spent in front of the computer screen.
There may also be other, less gender-specific reasons why Miss Galley, Ms Mayall, Ms Horlick and others have done well in fund-management. First – the blindingly obvious reason - they are rather good at it; and second, there is hard evidence of how good they are in the bottom line of the account sheets, evidence that cannot be refuted by the preferences and camaraderie of the Old Boy Network.
Before Miss Galley completes her evidence, it is also worth pointing out that the chief loss-maker so far as Unilever's pension funds were concerned was actually not Miss Galley, but a man – a whizz-kid characteristic of the fast-moving Eighties and early Nineties, who is now described (with the clarity of hindsight) as something of a "loose cannon".
The claim by Unilever is not just that its pension fund was mismanaged but that Miss Galley's management was negligent. Typically, the older, more senior woman has to choose between passing the buck down the line – looking weak or vindictive – or taking the responsibility ("like a man", it would be said) and risking the loss of her reputation as a successful woman. If the ruling goes against her, it will matter little that she announced her retirement back in March, to take effect at the end of the year. Her judgement will be written off as flawed.
In the meantime, she must suffer the predictable little barbs that are thrown even by specialist business reporters, who must be at least as interested in the outcome of the lawsuit as in the scrap between City tigresses. In recent days, Miss Galley has been described censoriously as "the most feared fund manager in the City"; as "tough", "abrasive" and "ruthless". For a man in the City, every one of these qualifications would be a badge of honour; applied to Miss Galley, however, they are in the way of excuses for how and why she got the better of the men.