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.

At the second conference I attended in the same week, about the nuclear threat of Iran, at least two speakers were women but again the event was for the most part a testosterone festival. “So what?” you may ask. Here’s what: Britain has a wealth of witty, enormously well-educated, and erudite female professionals in a variety of fields who bring sparkle to a discussion. An event like the Iran conference cried out for a number of female voices. Much as I detest her views on Israel, the columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown would have offered a compelling view on the Iran situation. At the end of October the BBC allowed ultra-right-wing BNP party head Nick Griffin to appear on the panel of the legendary political discussion program Question Time. The presence on the panel of the witty Bonnie Greer, the African-American writer, brought humor and warmth to the otherwise grim proceedings.


Fact: the FTSE 100’s four female finance chiefs are Stacey Cartwright at Burberry, Julia Wilson at 3i, Jann Brown at Cairn Energy, and Friends Provident’s Evelyn Bourke. Here is an amusing observation from the City Spy column in the print edition of the Evening Standard newspaper: Linda Hudson is the newly appointed head of the American wing (no pun intended) of British Aerospace. City Spy says this would ordinarily make her a candidate for group chief executive but BAE’s articles of association prohibit a non-Briton from becoming chief executive. The Spy’s conclusion? This is probably illegal if challenged. Be that as it may, here is yet another woman at the high end of industrial management but not one to be seen at the major conferences I have been attending.

The catastrophic events of 1929 were driven by men. When Lehman Brothers fell, Dick Fuld was seen as the villain. Enron? In the present credit crisis the villains in Britain are headed up by Sir Fred Goodwin of Royal Bank of Scotland, known as “Fred the Shred” because of his enormous pension fund taken in the wake of a financial crisis. The lists go on and on.

On November 6, I appeared on the panel of the nationally broadcast BBC Radio Four political debate program Any Questions and my fellow panelist was the feisty Caroline Flint, a former cabinet minister who left the Labour government after accusing Prime Minister Gordon Brown of “negative bullying.” She got heaps of applause from the audience with her robust views on sex education, the Afghanistan war, and the MP expense scandals. Afterwards I thought she would be a welcome face at 10 Downing Street.


My book Spitfire Girls, about the brave women who risked their lives flying thousands of untried aircraft from factories to airbases in the Second World War, celebrates the achievements of these female pilots. Now in 2009 a brave woman has taken on a mass murderer in Fort Hood, Texas. Yes, a man could have done the same, but she is proof that women have the right stuff too. I can already hear PJM bloggers complaining about female Governor Blanco of Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina and the money matters of one Imelda Marcos, but the crimes of men far, far exceed those of women in the present economic catastrophe. Let’s hear from successful women at those stuffy think tank conferences: they are succeeding where many men are not, and they have absolutely and unequivocally not caused the present disasters in which we find ourselves.


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