Women and the next financial crisis

There's been a sharp increase in the appointment of women to the boards of FTSE 100 companies in recent years, albeit from an incredibly low base to start with.

Although women hold just 17.3% of FTSE 100 board positions, that figure's up significantly from a year ago with 44% of all board appointments since March 2012 going to women, according to BoardWatch. Recently, the chairman of Lloyds Banking Group Sir Win Bischoff told The Telegraph he expects a 2015 government target of 25% board positions for women on the FTSE to be "met well before then".

That's an optimistic statement, and one he might be less inclined to make about the ASX 200 these days given a recent decrease in the number of board positions going to women. Locally, just 24% of all new board appointments (including executive roles) have been female, in the year to August 23, down from 28% in 2011.

So what's changed in the UK?

A number of things, including that 2015 government target as well as active campaigning by advocacy groups in Britain like BoardWatch and the new Women on Boards UK. But according to one London female chief executive, the sharp increase in female board appointments has a lot to do with the mistakes of the economic crisis. 

At a recent "women in the boardroom" event sponsored by the Evening Standard in London, Newton Investment chief executive Helena Morrissey told the crowd that real change in the UK around women in leadership has been driven by the financial crisis. She believes things may not have been as bad if there were more women at the top, in M&A and on the trading floors – and that companies are starting to catch on. 

According to Morrissey, organisations have since been forced to examine their board structures to see if a more diverse leadership culture could help avoid such disasters in the future. She points specifically to the example of the Royal Bank of Scotland during the crisis, where 17 of the firm's 18 board members were male.

Plenty of powerful women have questioned what difference could have been made by having more women on boards, and in the key decision-making positions prior to and during the global financial crisis. 

As Christine Lagarde quipped in a 2010 op-ed for The New York Times: "If Lehman Brothers had been 'Lehman Sisters', today's economic crisis clearly would look quite different." There were two women on the 10-person board of Lehman Brothers where the average age of directors was 68.

And what if there had been more female traders? The question's raised much debate since the crisis. 

In a Forbes interview earlier this month, former Goldman Sachs trader Lex van Dam outlined why he believes the financial crisis may not have hit as hard if there had been more women on trading floors.

"Women have a much higher sense of risk control than men," van Dam told Forbes. "And it can help avoid many of the disasters that risk taking by a male dominated trading environment has caused over the years." As such, he's calling for more women to get involved.

A number of neurological studies since the financial crisis have found hormones – including testosterone – play a role in driving traders to take ill-calculated risks.

Women still account for less than 10% of traders on the floor. Does the emphasis on gender diversity need to start here?

What do you think? Could a more diverse gender mix in leadership, trading and dealmaking help prevent the next economic crisis?

Angela Priestley

Angela Priestley is the Publisher and founding editor of Women's Agenda. She's an author, journalist and passionate advocate for workplace gender equality and diversity. Her first book is Women Who Seize the Moment.

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