Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Sexism in the City


   In my last post, I noted that changes in bank bonus structures need to be supported by broader changes in their HR practices and greater diversity in their staffing - particularly in terms of people with different engagement drivers, but also with different perspectives in general.

Debate on this, in the UK at least, has concentrated on equality for women, particularly at the most senior levels in City firms, which government minister Harriet Harman believes is "top of the list for treating women employees unfairly".  She has therefore asked the Equality and Human Rights Commission to investigate the City's male-dominated culture.

Management Today reports:

"Salary was the most egregious difference between the sexes, according to Harman. Female bankers apparently earn on average 40% less than their male counterparts, which is almost twice as big as the overall pay gap in the UK. It’s partly because there are so few women in the upper echelons of the industry: just one in 20 managing directors is female, despite the fact that the industry actually employs more women than men. But even those who make it to MD level usually get paid less – and they’re few and far between anyway. ‘City boards are still mostly a no-go area for women,’ Harman insisted today."


The Equality Bill

What's behind this situation?  One recent suggestion is that it's because "women are judged to be less visionary than men in 360-degree feedback. It may be a matter of perception, but it stops women from getting to the top."

However, there are a range of other systemic issues involved as well and I think the government is probably wise to avoid solving these and simply aiming to find ways around them. 

The main response will come through the Equality Bill (see my previous post on this).  Although this bill has been criticised for detracting from women's existing, undiscriminated ability to reach senior levels in organisations (see here for example), I personally believe it strikes an appropriate balance between doing nothing and imposing more drastic measures on businesses (see for example Thomas Otter's comment on my previous post).

The key question is, if City firms had included more women in their senior teams, would we have actually avoided the present difficulties?  Referring to this, Sylvia Ann Hewlett notes: "Finance has always been dominated by men and driven by a testosterone-enhanced culture."  She quotes research which suggests that men can tend to be aggressive - and sometime irresponsible - risk takers, and goes on to ask: "if women had been running our banks, might we have avoided the sub-prime mess and the resulting economic meltdown?"


Superwoman Returns

Responding to a similar question, 'superwoman' Nicola Horlick commented last year that

‘‘Women have a totally different approach to life.  They are less concerned about grabbing as much as they can for themselves and have a greater desire to build firm foundations that will endure.  I have absolutely no doubt that the world would have looked totally different if women had been in charge."


Niall Fitz-Gerald, deputy chairman of Thomson Reuters adds:

"There is a feminine approach to leadership, which is not, of course, confined to women. It is about being intuitive as well as rational. It is about multi-tasking and being sensitive to people's needs and emotions, as well as relationship-building and generous listening."


My initial reaction to Hewlett's question was similar to Nick Jefferson's in his post:

"The idea that men and male behavioural patterns are to blame for the global economic meltdown smacks of some terribly outdated stereoptypes that should have been left behind in the 70s and 80s.

My problem is not that this is offensive (although just try replacing the word "men" at every point in this article with your choice of "women"/ "comprehensive school-educated people"/"gays"/"ethnic minorities" if you think it isn't) but rather that it is so sweepingly generalistic as to be ridiculous.

I have met as many risk-averse men in the City as I have risk-prone men, possibly more. Equally I have met many women who thrive on risk and excitement. To characterise these very human issues as a matter of gender does a disservice to us all."


While these are all good points, Nick (and sorry it took me so long to reply), I still feel there's something in it too.  If City boards had been proportionally staffed by women, I think things might well have turned out a bit differently to the way they have.

It's a bit like the Equality Bill itself - on the surface it looks wrong, but there's a good chance it might just lead to the right results...



  • Consulting - Research - Speaking  - Training -  Writing
  • Strategy  -  Talent  -  Engagement  -  Change and OD
  • Contact  me to  create more  value for  your business
  • jon  [dot] ingham [at] strategic [dash] hcm [dot] com