It is hardly news that only a tiny handful of the world’s economic and business leaders are women and that the glass ceiling remains a real obstacle to their promotion. Many women therefore welcomed Christine Lagarde’s quip when, as French Finance Minister, a year after the global banking collapse in 2008, she suggested that the crisis would have looked very different if Lehman Brothers investment bank had been run by ‘Lehman Sisters’. Her remark triggered renewed debate about gender inequality in the financial sector and struck a chord in all areas of the workplace at a time of intense criticism of reckless corporate behaviour.
Subsequently, in an ironic aside to Lagarde’s later appointment as Head of the International Monetary Fund (2011), yet darker aspects of the male-dominance culture within the corridors of fiscal power were highlighted by the various scandals – not to mention serious allegations of sex crime – attending the downfall of previous IMF Head Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Today, the need for reform continues to be clear and urgent, even as some small sectors of the US and EU economies – on paper at least – appear to be lurching towards recovery.
So how far has the ongoing debate got to the root of gender inequality in business and, beyond, to the root of the global economic crisis? The answer is not very far. But the reasons for that lie as much within the terms of the debate as within the huge complexities of the issue and the difficulties of enacting reform.
Much of the response to Lagarde’s suggestion was to take it at face value and pursue those questions directly pertaining to the comment itself, the most obvious being whether she is right; would it really make a difference to corporate behaviour if more women were at the helm? If so, why? What forms might this difference take? Can we be certain any difference would be positive? Positive for whom exactly? Are we talking in purely economic terms of business performance or, more widely, about the role of business and employment in society?
On the wider issues, few seemed to question how greater numbers of women in the boardroom might ensure that the many social problems set in train by ongoing economic calamity would be addressed; problems which inevitably hit women and the most vulnerable members of society the hardest. Would it bring about equal pay between women and men at long last? And what about other, fundamental socio-economic issues such as the increasing polarisation of rich and poor and the continued erosion of living standards which so many ordinary people continue to experience as a direct result of corporate greed, corruption and incompetence – whether or not they are fortunate enough to be in paid employment?
Whatever the starting point, the issues very quickly become multiple, complex and far-reaching. Even so, things would appear simple at base – in corporate terms at least – for the statistics documenting the lack of women in business are dire. According to a report by GMI Ratings released in July 2012, in the US, 36% of companies still had no women on their board of directors, where the average number of members was nine per corporate board (a lower figure than the overall percentage across 45 countries at 39.8%). In the UK, the latest 2013 statistics from the Department for Business Innovation and Skills reveal that, notwithstanding the upward trend, still a mere 19% of directors in FTSE 100 companies are women and of those, just 6.1% are executive directors holding core posts within the company.
This is despite clear evidence of improved market success for those companies with a greater female presence in the boardroom. To take just one study covering a four-year period in the US, an analysis of Fortune 500 companies (by Catalyst, published in 2007) found that returns were much higher on equity (53%), sales (42%) and invested capital (66%) for those with most women in top management teams compared to those dominated by men. These findings were echoed in a 2007 survey of 101 large corporations across the world by management consultants McKinsey and Company, who found that firms with three or more women in senior management roles scored higher on nine key measures for corporate success, including leadership, motivation, innovation and accountability.
So it seems clear that encouraging women up the corporate ladder is vital to improving society’s fiscal health as we claw our way back from the economic brink – if not to saving its very economic core from meltdown at some point of the near or distant future.
But there is an uncomfortable sense of déjà-vu about the gender debate which ignited around the credit-crunch (and which continues to cycle tiredly around business and politics today); not least because it fails to address deeper systemic issues. As opinions polarised around Lagarde’s remark and how to tackle the often misogynist cronyism of the old boys’ network, a crass kind of dualistic thinking re-emerged around gender issues on all sides of the debate; a kind of thinking in which women are seen only in comparison to men. Indeed, Lagarde’s very comment was predicated upon a dubious over-simplification born of thinking which is patriarchal at root; for, however challenging the financial establishment may have found her raising of gender issues from within its very heart, and, however ‘controversial’ her grounds may be for a favourable comparison of female behaviour to male within that predominantly male environment, she was nonetheless advocating nothing more radical or far-reaching than a call for greater numbers of women to hold positions of corporate power. In other words, she was not challenging the basic thinking behind corporate power structures, merely seeking access to that power for women.
In a way reminiscent of the identity politics of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Lagarde’s comment invited discussion of the role of women in business in terms of inclusion and representation – and it unearthed a lot of tedious gender stereotyping, of men as well as women (men are aggressive / women are conciliatory, men are reckless / women are careful and so on), in discussions about whether women might have particular skills to bring to the table. But, in mainstream circles at least, the debate has stopped well short of a genuine feminist critique of Western capitalism itself – despite the system being one in which women, usually participating as unpaid, cheap or cheaper labour, are very much poorer, second class citizens, often regardless of their social class. (Even those women lucky enough to be in full-time employment can expect to earn 16.4% less than their male counterparts, while all women aged 40 earn 27% less than men of the same age according to a study published in 2010 by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.)
In its current form, the Western capitalist system itself is the problem, not just who runs it or what gender they happen to be. For the system not only came close to destroying itself in financial terms in 2008 (simply the latest and most critical in a number of global postwar financial crises from the OPEC oil crisis of the seventies to Japan’s asset price bubble of 1986 onwards and 1987’s Black Monday), but it has become increasingly dysfunctional at a cultural level. Whilst lip-service is paid to the supposed mobility of the free-market, in reality, the system is designed in such a way that profit comes at the expense of social equality; for example, through morally dubious foreign outsourcing practices by which workers in developing nations endure horrendous working conditions and pitiful wages to satisfy insatiable Western consumerist demands – which are in turn created and recreated in endless, ever-growing cycles by corporate marketing. Indeed, the structure and behaviour of corporations and financial markets has long been revealed to run counter to democratic ideals and basic principles of socio-economic justice, which, even in the relatively rich UK, creates social hierarchies every bit as rigid and pernicious as the class system we are encouraged to believe is disappearing through such cosy-sounding propaganda as Tony Blair’s ‘we are all middle-class now’ (from which the current-day myth that ‘we are all in it together’ stems directly).
In gender terms, the very urgency of the renewed debate is testimony to the failure of previous feminist campaigns in business and politics – which may well have changed some attitudes towards women for the better, and opened some doors for educated women of the ‘right’ background in the process, but which have been unable to effect systemic reform; not just resulting in the continued exclusion of huge swathes of working-class and ethnic minority women from access to positions of power, but shoring up the very system of gender, race and class privilege which, in 2008, came close to scuppering our economy entirely on the rocks of global financial collapse.
Naomi Klein is one commentator who might urge us not to miss the economic wood for the trees at this time of tentative initial recovery from the economic crisis. As long ago as 1999, in her hard-hitting de-construction of corporate culture No Logo, Klein argued against the alternative grain when she suggested that an obsession with identity politics prevented activists of the late ‘80s and ‘90s from noticing the ingress of a far greater threat to freedom and equality; identity branding. She contested that, as activists engaged in self-referential turf-fights over the representation and visibility of women, gays and ethnic minorities – however pressing these issues were then and remain today – activists lost sight of the bigger economic picture in the process; they simply did not notice when powerful corporations, already switched on to the youth marketing goldmine of ‘cool’, began actively to appropriate the new focus on ‘diversity’ as a marketing tool (those infamous Benetton ads appearing to challenge racial stereotypes, for example – and continuing today, as Guinness exploits issues around disability in a pre-Christmas advert for tv).
Indeed, Klein argues that a corporate coup d’etat took place under the activists’ very noses in which companies successfully exploited global markets in new ways by means of cynical appeal to oppressed groups, utilising the very language of social activism (Nike, for example, promoting sports shoes as objects of female and black freedom and status). In Klein’s words: ‘identity politics weren’t fighting the system, or even subverting it. When it came to the vast new industry of corporate branding, they were feeding it.’ Ironically, it only serves to reinforce Klein’s point to note that, just last week on 18 November, BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour hosted a discussion on whether ‘feminism needs re-branding’ in the face of a perceived ‘negative image’; surely, the very question being as depressing a sign as one could point to of the wholesale swallowing of corporate thinking and terminology.
Interestingly, from the early 2010s – and right on cue it seems, amidst claims of a supposed ‘90s cultural revival – a new wave of identity politics started to crest, just as brand-worship became truly ubiquitous on every social and cultural level despite rising unemployment, the outstripping of wages by inflation and increasing chasms between rich and poor, the West and developing nations. Concurrently, as we all know to our individual cost and the detriment of our social fabric, governments adopted punitive austerity programmes and slashed public spending in moves that continue to target their most vulnerable citizens. But, in the UK at least, the government has yet to encounter real – or at least effective – opposition as, for example, it has successfully bamboozled and divided the working class and women across the board with poisonous, scapegoating rhetoric about unemployed ‘scroungers’ and immigrants who are somehow allegedly managing to steal both our jobs and our welfare at the same time.
Against this ugly backdrop of a turn to the political right, the UK middle-classes indulge in heated debates about everything from Scandinavian-style boardroom quotas for women to new trends in oxymoronic Tory feminism as the Conservative party desperately tries to stop the haemorrhage of its hard-hit female support base. But the toxic legacies of Thatcherite financial deregulation and profit-worship with which we are still faced – a legacy only enhanced by the corporate wet dream of Blair’s ‘New Labour’ – serve as an ironic reminder that greater involvement by women at management level hardly guarantees greater long-term economic stability, nor does it ensure financial justice for those women and men in the West and the developing world who are paying the highest price for an increasingly sociopathic Western capitalism – which is fast being adopted elsewhere in the world. Seen from this perspective, speculation about whether women might, for instance, be more or less prone than men to indulge in risky business ventures, is not only based on banal gender stereotype, but would ultimately appear to be beside the point.
As the reality and consequences of economic collapse continue to hit home, substantive, not just symbolic, reform remains urgent. It is more vital than ever to become aware of the bigger economic picture and to take action in light of its problems. Whilst battles to do away with glass ceilings and bring about changes in the gender balance of financial institutions are undoubtedly crucial, they can equally be used as a convenient red herring to distract from the wider, more fundamental need to effect deep, systemic reform in the way capitalist structures operate; the urgency of which calls for real, feminist vision from women – and men – within business at all levels.
Of course, some form of identity politics need not be incompatible with a deeper focus on economic reform – indeed the two need to go hand-in-hand (and you only have to read my essay elsewhere in this issue, ‘Women in Music Today: Ethel Smyth, the Suffragettes and Odaline de la Martinez in Conversation’ to see blatant iniquities in the music industry). But the point is that much of the debate continues to focus on such short-term sticking plasters as positive discrimination, for example; a not-so-subtle social-engineering measure which may help to kickstart practical changes in the short term (at least in recalcitrant areas of employment practice, say), but which, in the long-term, merely offers the same kind of narrow dualistic thinking which epitomises the system as it stands – albeit from the ‘opposite’ direction so to speak. There is no guarantee that such measures would effect the necessary fundamental change in our financial systems or business culture; indeed, the debate needs to take conscious account of the continued failures and otherwise ad-hoc benefits of such concepts as ‘trickle-down’, with the unwarranted faith in market success eventually to provide social and economic progress for all.
If we truly aspire to notions of democracy and freedom, then ways must be found to establish real principles of equal opportunity and equal access at the heart of our socio-economic system, not merely as desperate add-ons in an attempt to find some kind of panacea to financial and social disaster. As a society, that will entail not just a willingness to tackle the behaviour of powerful corporations and financial institutions – such as the banks – that are currently still attempting to recover the system wholly in their own interests, but to take a good, hard look at our monetary values and to undertake a cultural reassessment of how we define ourselves as women and men within a wider financial landscape. We now need to decide what roles we choose to accept as gendered individuals within a financial system that so plainly affects not just our own but the material and cultural well-being of other women, men and children across the globe.
Illustration by Dean Lewis