Male workers were the main victims of the 1980s recession, but the current credit crunch is affecting women at least as badly as men; tens of thousands of female workers have already lost their jobs, with more to come. Although women are suffering alongside men in the economic downturn, their voices have been conspicuously absent from the debate on what went wrong and how we should go about reconstructing the banking system. Very few female delegates were invited to the World Economic Forum at Davos, and the Treasury select committee hearings into the crisis did not call any women journalists or commentators. If men were the architects of a risky and fragile financial system whose flaws have now been laid bare, should we be looking to women to help create a more balanced and sustainable economy? We brought together seven women from the world of business and finance to give their views.
We asked whether one of the causes of the credit crunch was machismo: did an overdose of testosterone in male-dominated financial institutions lead to risky behaviour and strategies? Had the panel experienced the macho culture at first hand, and did they believe the current crisis might have been avoided if there had been a better gender balance at the top of banks?
Ros: I have absolutely no doubt that a significant factor in all of this is excess machismo; the idea that you always have to be one step ahead, that you always have to beat your rivals. There was not the co-operative thinking that there would be in a female environment: it was about how to be the best, the first, almost irrespective of the risks. I certainly wouldn't argue that if women had been in charge everything would have been different, but if there had been a greater female contribution to the running of businesses, there would have been a natural tendency for a woman to say, "Let's take a bit of a longer-term view."
Ruth Lea: I half agree with that. I used to work at Lehman Brothers and there was a huge atmosphere of machismo. This was 10 years ago, but it was overwhelmingly male-dominated then and I suspect City institutions still are. It reminds me of going on a far eastern trip with a male colleague and it was totally wearing. Every time we got to another financial centre he would be off to the gym. I thought, "I can't bear this," and I would be off to the mini bar. At the end of the week I was the one still standing, though not totally sober! It was macho, risk-taking, and a sales culture that I won't say was immoral, but it was buccaneering. The problem is that buccaneering spirit migrated from the investment banks into general banking and infected the whole financial system. You just have to look at what's happened to Sir James Crosby [the former chief executive of HBOS who stood down as deputy chairman of the Financial Services Authority after it emerged he had ignored warnings from a whistleblower, Paul Moore, about risks at the bank] and hear what Paul Moore has to say about HBOS. It is quite clear that the awful macho risk-taking has got into the bloodstream.
Emma: I don't think it is about men and women. Paul Moore blew the whistle, and he was a man, after all. It is about diversity of attitudes towards risk. We need broader ways of looking at investment and risk-taking.
Charlotte: I think women do have a different attitude to risk, but you need to take some risks in business. I believe in the diversity argument, that you need a balance. You are beginning to see that more though there is a long way to go towards true equality.
Ros: You need a moderating influence to all that testosterone, and there wasn't that influence, or certainly not sufficient of it.
Toni: You don't have a balance at the top of banks. The higher you go up, the less you see women. You are losing the impact of women and the ability of women to contribute. Their views are being lost at that top level.
Cary: I agree with Charlotte. It is not necessarily that you needed women in there, but you need different types of people. My personal experience starting up a technology business is successful firms are the ones with a diversity of thinkers. They would have a live-wire entrepreneur who is gung-ho and a risk-taker, but you would also have calmer people who temper the risk-takers. There is a pack mentality in the City. It is about people who want to run with the pack. This whole crisis is caused because people were all taking risks at the same time.
Ros: It is about not wanting to be a wimp. Everyone is taking risks and if I don't do that I am going to be the wimp. What man would sign up for that? It's just not going to happen.
Toni: But what woman in that environment would sign up to be a wimp either? Even if there were more women, the ones in that culture are very similar. They might not be comfortable, but they either have to run with the pack or leave.
Janice: There is the Thatcher factor, where you have to behave like a man to get ahead and that is a negative thing. In fund management, for instance, a lot of firms like women because they are better at client relationships, better at treating their staff, but longer term a lot more women left the field because they found it hard to have a domestic or social life.
Toni: There has been some research on the gender balance on boards in financial institutions and those with more than 25 per cent female participation have greater profit and greater achievement. But what is happening is that women are not seeing enough role models and are voting with their feet. They see these testosterone-filled environments and they don't want a career in that.
This recession has been described as the first equal opportunities downturn because women are losing their jobs alongside men. Is enough attention being paid to the impact on women? Does the panel think there is unconscious sexism going on, with employers feeling it is more acceptable to make a woman redundant because there is probably a man in the background supporting her?
Charlotte: Most women don't have such luck. But I would only imagine that a part-time worker would be an easier person to cut than a full-timer. I would imagine employers, given the choice of cutting a full-timer or a part-timer, will cut the person on three days a week, whether they are a man or a woman. What they forget is the person on a three-day week is probably doing five days' work anyway.
Toni: You are seeing women are getting made redundant from low-skilled, lower-paid, part-time jobs. It will be harder for them to get back into employment, because they are less likely to have qualifications and skills. Not enough attention is being paid to this.
Ros: This is the first time we have seen a general rise in unemployment since the dramatic increase in labour-force participation by women. It may feel worse but I'm not sure we're suffering more than men.
Ruth Lea: Because the economy has moved on and is more service-based, it is affecting women more, but I wouldn't make a big issue of that. Men overwhelmingly identify themselves with their job, much more than women. In the 80s recession I knew men who lost their jobs and it was absolutely devastating for them. In fact, in many cases, it was the women who still went out to work. The men were at home just wrecked as people and it was deeply, deeply socially destructive.
Emma: I think there is an opportunity to look creatively at how people work. I would bet there are as many men as women who would like flexibility, rather than being made unemployed.
Cary: If the result of this is that companies start introducing more flexible working practices then that will have a brilliant effect on bringing more females into the talent pool, so it could be a blessing in disguise.
Ros: I think the group that is worst affected is older workers, not just women but men as well. They are more at risk because employers think they haven't got much left in them. I'm talking about people who are 50-plus, which is still very young.
Charlotte: I would go the other way as an employer. I would be loth to sack an older worker because of the guilt factor over laying off somebody who is 45-plus and who is going to find it a lot more difficult to find a job. I don't think ageism kicks in earlier for women, I think it is almost the other way.
Janice: Yes, it is, because you have had your children. Women who are younger are discriminated against. If you are older you are not suspected of wanting maternity leave.
Has the media coverage of the slump been biased and male-dominated, or is it just reflecting the fact that women have not made inroads into the upper ranks of business and finance?
Ruth Lea: The media are covering reality. You can't blame the media or the Treasury select committee for calling all male journalists because that is the reality. I was a journalist in the past and I was the only female economics editor - you have Stephanie Flanders now, but it is still dominated by men.
Ros: That's not true, I think the women journalists are not being picked out.
Ruth Lea: No, I don't agree with you. I just don't agree, sorry, because I have to say this, I was never held back by being a woman. In fact, ironically being a female economist helped me, especially at the dear old BBC, which gets criticised for everything. Somebody said to me one day, "They wanted a male and a female economist because it looked better than having all chaps. They had thousands of chaps all coming along, and then they had you." I said, "Well, thank you for making my career. I'm not sure whether I take that as a compliment or an insult."
Emma: We shouldn't just focus on business journalism. If you look at Observer Woman magazine, for example, there is lots of coverage about being stylish in a recession, so the female journalists are writing about it, just not exclusively in the business sections.
Ros: I fundamentally disagree. I honestly think that the choices in the male-dominated select committees on whom to call have been biased against women. There are many good business journalists who are women: if they had wanted to even find one woman they would have been spoiled for choice, but they didn't think to ask any.
Are women really more ethical and responsible? Didn't women contribute to the crunch by conspicuous consumption?
Ruth Lea: The average consumer, male or female, doesn't give a toss about ethical issues - their budgets are squeezed and they want the biggest bang for their bucks. I wouldn't criticise that, because I understand their reality.
Emma: The ethical consumer has always been a relatively small proportion of consumption as a whole.
Ros: I still think that, listening to us all round this table, our female values are coming through whether we like it or not. This is a caring mind-set, a nurturing mind-set, a mind-set that says let's worry about the future. What's happened at the top of institutions and in the economy as a whole has been very different from that. It has been very short-term, and very much about instant gratification. I know you can't generalise, but there is a gender difference in outlook, whether it is because of the nurturing role mothers play. What has driven these men has been short-termism and irresponsibility.
Toni: We all have to take some responsibility. I've got my fair share of credit cards. I've gone out and bought things maybe I shouldn't have because I've thought, "Hey, jam later's no good to me, I want my nice car now," or, "I want my house so I'll stretch myself." Women make 80% of buying decisions.
Cary: But you are not asking the taxpayer to bail you out. You are taking personal responsibility for your debt.
Ruth Lea: Macroeconomic policy was highly irresponsible. We can all say that Gordon Brown, who was chancellor for such a long time, just sat on an economy that was essentially running on steroids, it was running beyond its capacity.
Does the panel think that female-led businesses are better equipped to survive the slump than ones run by men? Will we see a positive outcome for women, and companies run by women?
Cary: Yes, I mean I hope so. The one good thing about this is that the people who have been worst behaved have had their heads on a spike. The banks might be thinking that if they are lending to a woman in charge of a business, she might be slightly more risk-averse. Look at the trend for women-run businesses who get venture capital. It is tiny because I think women with their own businesses have a realistic, medium-sized goal, whereas the venture capitalists look for all or nothing. I wasn't prepared to do that. When I showed the venture capitalists my business plan, they said to go away and put more noughts on that. It's this casino mentality, that we only want to play on the big machines. We don't want to play on the little ones, even if they are much more likely to pay out.
Charlotte: What a lot of men say is that women are good at multi-tasking and I don't think anyone would argue with that. It is the advantage women bring, looking forward. A lot of female leaders bring the ability to sit there and go, "OK, I'm going to sort this crisis out, but I'm not just going to think about that, I'm thinking about growing my business as well." That's a major advantage that will stand us in good stead for the future.
Cary: Obviously some men can do that, but multi-tasking is a female trait, isn't it?
Charlotte: When you speak to a chief executive and she has children, generally she will be the one getting up at three, four, five in the morning, teething them and still going to work - I'm going through teething and Calpol at the moment. I think there is an ability among women just to take on more work, and not to turn round and say, "I can't do this."
Emma: I think if a guy says, "Right, I'm leaving now because it's my child's sports day", all these women around the table will go, "Aah, what a lovely guy." But if you answer the phone and it is your nanny calling, they will say, "Oh, can't you sort out your childcare?"
Toni: Women can be women's worst enemy. Actually, you can't do it all wonderfully.
Charlotte: You can if you don't sleep.
Cary: I think what would be nice is if we were able, as women, to support whatever choices we make, whether that is going back to work after two weeks, two months, two years or two days, if you are [former French justice minister] Rachida Dati, or not going back to work at all.
Ros: I think women have a natural tendency to feel guilty whatever they do, and men don't do that, I'm not sure why. It doesn't mean women can't achieve, it just means that there is some emotional baggage that goes along with it.
Janice: Women have different perspectives. I was lucky enough to interview the novelist Margaret Atwood about her book Payback, which is about debt. She started working on it before the crunch and I wondered how she did that. She said she had a sense of what was going on because she is a nosy person, she saw the advertisements for debts and mortgages. She said the economy is not just the banks, it is us.
Ros: That's why I feel policy is so wrong at the moment, because it is looking at institutions, not what the crunch is doing to people.
In Iceland, women have been appointed to run the banks because they were not a part of the male culture that created the problems. Should we do the same thing here? Is the thinking about how to repair the economy still dominated by a male mind-set?
Toni: There will be people looking for the first sign of failure from those women in Iceland. They will say: 'You wanted that high-powered position - have it. We can't wait to see you fail.'
Emma: We need to look beyond gender and look at some of the ways people are incentivised and remunerated, we need to move towards long-term mechanisms for assessing people. It goes right back to the basis of accounting. If you have a long-term focus, you bring in a different way of valuing things. I have spent a lot of time thinking about how you value things socially and environmentally. If you value things purely from a financial perspective then you possibly end up with the wrong type of metrics. Look at some of the happiness data. How do you measure people's general welfare? Looking at purely monetary data is not the right way to do it.
Ruth Lea: This idea that you put women in to clean up the mess men have made is a very dangerous one. I don't know the women in question in Iceland but I just hope they have the requisite skills because if these women are not competent it will horribly rebound. I don't like the idea of women being appointed to clean up messes unless they have the skills.
Ros: But why are you assuming they haven't?
Ruth Lea: I'm not assuming anything.
Toni: We don't want women running everything. (Chorus from the table: "Why not? We do really" ... laughter) We want diversity. It is about reflecting society, having different opinions and a balance.
Janice: There could be something positive that comes out of this, because there has been such a focus on the whole macho culture and where it has got us that there might be a change; it is something that could be capitalised on.
Ros: But I still think the whole debate we are having in response to this crisis is being led by men and conducted with a male mindset. We are trying to solve the problems by continuing the policies that got us into this mess. The debate is dominated by how can we get back to how we were before, and that is not what we need. We need long-term thinking, not short-term thinking. You have the Bank of England governor saying he knows what we are doing is short term and wrong, but we are doing it anyway.
Ruth Lea: What's that then?
Ros: Taking money away from people who have been saving and giving it to people who have borrowed too much, and to bankers.
Charlotte: I don't like the fact the Icelandic experiment was about appointing women because they are women: it should be about the best people and the right mix. I don't want a whole macho sales culture when I'm building my team. I might want one or two people like that, but I'll choose others to balance that off. Whether that is a man or a woman is irrelevant.
Ros: But women are much more open to thinking like that than men are. You are doing that because you are a woman, whereas a man might recruit people in his own image.
Ruth Lea: I have been keeping quiet because no one agrees with me, but in nearly every debate I hear, apart from some of those extraordinary Neanderthal type bankers, there is a realisation that we cannot go back to the old system. I am an old age pensioner and a saver and I am disgusted that interest rates are where they are, but to defend the Bank of England governor Mervyn King, I took his point that if there is a sudden readjustment, then my goodness me, this recession, which is already dreadful, will be considerably worse. That's all I will say. Now you can disagree with me, Ros.
Ros: We have had a sudden readjustment that the policy-makers don't understand. Pensioners' incomes have been cut by 75 per cent. We are trying to keep intact this system of banking that has failed, using the banking channel to get loans to business instead of the government taking charge, and trusting male bankers - and they are male - to get their act together. We are holding the whole economy to ransom, the millions of savers in this country. We are undermining capitalism by removing the risk of failure, by bailing out banks at the expense of those who did nothing wrong.
Ruth Lea: Ros, I agree with you entirely, but I wouldn't start from here. We had a housing boom, a huge pile of personal debt, a huge experiment in the banking system where risk wasn't something anyone worried about, but the trouble is we are here. It's not easy and it's going to be nasty.
Emma: I would hope that we get a mind-set that comes into this debate that allows a different type of thinking about other areas, about the environment, about green issues. We are going through a financial crunch but there are a whole range of other crunches coming up around carbon, around water and a lot of those will impact first on developing countries. We need to think about some of the risks that have built up in the financial system and also to understand the other risks that are building up.
Toni: I think what will happen as a result of this is that you will get a whole new ethos around business, ethics and the environment. Many of the businesses started and led by women who leave these big City jobs will be about giving back. They are more environmentally sound and more ethically sound. Businesses will have to start justifying themselves and their decisions because of the credit crunch and the issues coming up around the environment and resources. Firms will have to be more aware of their role in the community, and businesses will have to start justifying themselves more. Customers will demand it.
Janice: We have a US president who says he's a feminist. Is that going to lead somewhere? Maybe it will.