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>Time to bank on women

>FRIDAY, 8 MAY 2009, Regeneration & Renewal blog

Have you ever wondered what a planet run by women may look like? Maybe not quite like that spoof dystopian sketch by the Two Ronnies in which women rule England while men wear women’s clothes and mind the house and law and order is managed by female guards in boots and hot pants.

This week equalities minister Harriet Harman has suggested that if more women held senior positions in banks we may not now be in a deep financial crisis that we are in. She hinted that the Government might use equality legislation to force the appointment of more women managers in banks. This is not something some males in the industry were pleased to hear.

When I interviewed former Dragon’s Den judge, Rachel Elnaugh, the other month, she said she had done away with her previously ruthless attitude to business and that less competitiveness and more collaboration is important to surviving the downturn. She said: “Alpha male competitiveness is actually quite outdated. Feminine businesses these days are what are needed. They are much more collaborative.”

Her views echo those of some in the social enterprise sector who think socially responsible institutions are the future, after the economic crisis has left the public disillusioned with the hubris and greed of commercial banks.

Trevor Phillips, who heads the Equalities Commission, believes that putting more women in charge would go a long way towards restoring public confidence in financial institutions.

And what’s more, Muhammed Yunus, who founded the Grameen Bank 26 years ago to give loans to the poor of Bangladesh, started it with the principle to lend only to women because it had a more beneficial social effect.

Despite the male grumbles, Harriet Harman may well be onto something.


Anonymous said…
Come on human beings are greedy whether they are male or female, this aint a gender thing.
11 MAY 2009 13:52

Anonymous said…
What nonsense! Greed affects both sexes equally – sex is not the issue.
11 MAY 2009 13:57

Rachel said…
This is a really interesting debate. Mostly because behind any extremes that seem to be being advocated, there is reason in putting women with greater empathy and social conscience into banks, where greed and egoism are partly to blame in getting us into hot water. Greed may be human but that is not humanity-
11 MAY 2009 14:36

Anonymous said…
Harriet Harman is simply gunning for her boss’ job – her comment about the benefits of having women in charge of banks seemed to me a nakedly self interested jibe, with the real object Gordon Brown. Give me the job – a woman – read the subtext and things can only get better.

What nonsense. Women are in no way more inclined towards collaboration than men – what causes alpha male competitiveness is a culture that rewards that behaviour. A man OR a woman can change that culture by setting a tone and rewarding different kinds of behaviour.

Harman seems to have not moved on from Feminism 101. Give me a break.
11 MAY 2009 16:01

Anonymous said…
Excellent blog, agree completely. Banks need to have a better balance between risk-taking and caution. This would happen if there were more women at the top – at the moment, many of the ones who do make it feel like they have to act like men to stay there.

Note that two women are now in charge of Icelandic banks – cleaning up the mess that the men made, according to a government official!

12 MAY 2009 13:24

Herpreet Grewal said…
The author replies:

Never mind gender politics, what does the evidence say? An American Massachusetts Institute of Technology study of female leaders running village councils in India found that by objective measures (building better wells, taking fewer bribes) women ran their villages better.

Also American women are about to eclipse men in sheer payroll numbers – and they’re now majority owners of nearly half of the private companies in the country. But the average working woman still devotes much more time to childcare and housework.

Women perhaps have had to be more collaborative out of need. It is a fact that most of the people in the world who live in poverty are women. Research in developing countries by economists such as Amartya Sen, shows that the male head of the home “almost always” keeps a disproportionate amount of a family’s income to spend on himself. What remains for the woman is spent on the needs of the whole household and family, rather than herself.

Academics in Scotland, currently conducting research into this area say it’s similar in working class communities in the UK. They argue that whilst the Government’s measurement of households below average income is needed it should also provide disaggregated data that may help policymakers target adult poverty and so discern its disproportionate effect on women.

So Harman’s suggestion should be seen as a possible solution that can perhaps restore a balance to our financial systems – and maybe even have a broader reach into other sectors.
12 MAY 2009 14:22

zohra said…
Think it’s important to remember that the point about ensuring more women can lead institutions is about ensuring that discrimination is stamped out and these same institutions are not systematically ignoring half the talent available.

There is value in moving away from group think in terms of innovation and problem solving in the business world. Organisations that are run almost exclusively by white men are compromising their access to wider, more diverse thinking.

The Fawcett Society has recently published this report on women and the recession, which explores these issues further.
12 MAY 2009 14:23

Anonymous said…
If we are to take Harman’s suggestion seriously – which I hope nobody actually does – would there be some kind of test in the appointment process to ensure that the woman selected to run with these banks is in fact one of these naturally intuitive collaborative women disinclined to self serving behaviour that are championed here?
The very idea of basing policy on some supposedly inherent gender trait is dangerous and I hope its a path this country never goes down.
12 MAY 2009 14:30

D Stevens said…
You ask the question, “have you ever wondered what a planet run by women may look like?” May I suggest that it might possibly look like Britain under Margaret Thatcher…
12 MAY 2009 14:37

Anonymous said…
Spot on D Stevens, this whole idea that women leaders can some how make everything ok has a whiff of undergraduate naivety about it …
12 MAY 2009 14:39

Anonymous said…
There are women other than Margaret Thatcher in this world…saying something simplistic like that doesn’t undermine the argument that a change of business culture is required and that is slightly more likely to happen if a greater number of women get into senior positions…Take a look at the reports and studies done of what has happened to the business cultures of countries where they have brought in laws mandating a certain number of women on the boards. Those studies are very positive about the effect of women on innovation and preventing group-think. Like a testosterone-fuelled trader losing a lot of our money, you might try doing a bit of research before you make a prat of yourself.
12 MAY 2009 14:49

Hannah said…
I wonder how many of those anonymous commentators criticising this excellent blog are men? I suspect that the answer is 100 per cent of them.
12 MAY 2009 14:56

K Sievewright said…
Without going down the ‘men-can’t-do-more-than-one-thing-at-a-time’ route, working women with children have learned, by necessity, to use their time more effectively. There’s nothing like knowing you have to be out the door bang on 5.30 to concentrate the mind. We don’t have time to discuss last night’s football!
12 MAY 2009 15:19

D Stevens said…
To the anonymous poster timed at 14.49, if you read my post properly, you will notice that at no point do I attempt to undermine the argument that a “change of business culture is required” or that it is “slightly more likely to happen if a greater number of women get into senior positions”. You talk about reports and studies focussing on scenarios where women have been in positions in power – well, I can point you in the direction of another huge body of evidence, namely Britain during the 1980s.

So, going back to my original point – I suggest you learn to read properly as it is likely to make you more eloquent and better able to construct reasoned arguments rather than simply dismissing people as a “prat”.
12 MAY 2009 15:24

Anonymous said…
Dear D,

I’m sorry that you remain confused about matters. If you did truly understand that I am talking about a change in culture, you would understand that talking about Margaret Thatcher, or any individual man or woman, is a red herring.

Best wishes,


p.s. I suggest you go back to school, choose any years between 1 and 11, do a history report on the 1980s and explain that what happened then was mainly down to the sex of the PM. See what mark you get. Something tells me Simon Schama isn’t quaking in his boots.
13 MAY 2009 11:36

D Stevens said…
Dear 14.49,

To go back to the beginning. Herpreet, in what I think is an excellently written blog, asked a question about what a planet run by women would look like. I suggested an answer. The fact that you took the analogy to be an implied criticism says more about you political persuasion than anything else. Though it is not a view I share personally, I can assure you that there are a significant number of people that believe Margaret Thatcher did a very good job running this country. So much so, in fact, that they re-elected her on more than one occasion.

You mentioned that my initial response was simplistic. Was it any more simplistic than Rachel Elnaugh’s remark that compared “outdated” male competitiveness with feminine businesses that are “much more collaborative”?

Saying men are competitive and women are collaborative seems very simplistic to me. Indeed, there are female commentators who have argued that women are much more competitive than men.

Best wishes,


p.s. You can rest assured that I have absolutely no desire to emulate Simon Schama.
13 MAY 2009 13:28

Wendy Davis said…
Research into hormonal influences and brain scans is beginning to suggest that men and women ARE different – although of course everyone sits along a spectrum which overlaps – there ARE bullying, aggressive, warmongering, competitive women (vide Maggie Thatcher) and there ARE non-violent, co-operative, intelligent, caring men (vide Mahatma Ghandi)…. however research to date seems to suggest that more women sit towards the Ghandi end and more men sit towards the Thatcher end.

Of course the human brain is incredibly plastic and flexible – stroke victims often manage to teach other parts of their brains to take over the functions of the damaged parts.

We know that environment is incredibly important – nurture and education can make a huge difference to behaviour- and of course humans CAN control their behaviour whatever their underlying desires…. male animals may not be able to resist a female on heat – but we can educate most men to avoid rape…..

Many of the women who have managed to succeed in financial institutions up to now have had to be “more male than the men” – more aggressive, more intelligent, more hard-working, more competitive, more ruthless – in order to get where they are against all the sexism and discrimination that still exists.

Were the playing field to be more level, I think that women would generally bring a much more sensible, sustainable and compassionate approach to our financial institutions
19 MAY 2009 13:05

Anonymous said…
07 JUNE 2009 23:51

Anonymous said…
07 JUNE 2009 23:54


About Herpreet Kaur Grewal

Herpreet Kaur Grewal is a newspaper-trained journalist, editor and commentator. She formerly wrote and edited a section for the social policy and politics magazine Regeneration & Renewal. She has worked for The Times of London and her articles have featured in The Guardian, The Observer and The Daily Express. She specialises in social deprivation issues, gender, human rights , arts and culture.


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Herpreet Kaur Grewal is an editor and journalist currently based in London.

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