Where Are the Women in Business?

OK, guys, let’s face it: every time there is a story about absolutely crapola behavior in the world of high finance and big money, the villains are men.

Going way back to the British Guinness scandal, the heavies were males, and various scams and power deals gone wrong were masterminded by fellas. There were names like Gerald Ronson and Roger Levitt in the UK and in the U.S. we had Ivan Boesky, Ken Lay, Bernie Madoff, and Dick Fuld involved in either scams and Ponzis or spectacular failures. Even Ponzi was a guy.

When the car supremos sat trembling before the congressional committees, fresh off their corporate jets -- and probably fresh out of the laps of female companions there just for “entertainment” -- they were male, male, male.

What is my point? Recently I attended the inaugural conference of a worthy new organization in London, the Legatum Institute, which is connected to the distinguished American Enterprise Institute. The topic of the event was corporate crises and the financial slump. I got there early and had the pleasure of sitting at a table with Lord Lawson, former Thatcher cabinet minister but better known as the father of television chef Nigella Lawson. (I will digress: this sexy, buxom lady, a household name, probably has more influence in the lives of Britons than do all those male financial wizards rolled into one.)

As the Legatum breakfast room filled I realized I was the only woman present. It was a strange, surreal feeling: my table was populated by young men in suits, as were all of the other tables as far as I could see. Then one woman arrived: I recognized her as Baroness Neville-Jones, the former head of British intelligence, and was pleased I had such illustrious company. The day wore on and panel after panel held forth about the perils of the present financial turmoil but not one woman spoke. I mentioned this at one of the question-and-answer sessions, naming top female executives who had been singled out for plaudits by the London Evening Standard newspaper, but got stony stares from the stage. The lunchtime speaker was a man. Again, the table at which I was seated was filled with suits. They were nice blokes but where were the women?

I ask this because right now the most successful, untarnished, and formidable people in industry are women. In the United States Oprah Winfrey comes to mind and here in the UK Dame Marjorie Scardino heads the Pearson Group. Like Clara Furse (she was head of the London Stock Exchange for eight years) she has enjoyed considerable career success, as has Cynthia Carroll, head of Anglo-American, the world’s biggest platinum producer. (I love the idea that Carroll has a BS in geology from Skidmore College, an MS from the University of Kansas, and an MBA from Harvard -- and ends up in London.) Another American in London, Angela Ahrendts, is a top executive at Burberry. Although it grieves me that some thirty staff have been made redundant at Random House, Gail Rebuck, its CEO, also known as Lady Gould (no relation), appears to be the darling of British industry this year, having been awarded the Veuve Cliqot Businesswomen of the Year Award. My editor at Random House, Vanessa Neuling, is a gifted young rising star and will likely go on to great achievements in her own right.