Call for women to clear decks of City boys' clubs

APPOINTING more women to senior positions in the City will help overcome the "potentially dangerous group-think" mentality that contributed to the banking crisis, a group of senior MPs asserts today.

The Treasury select committee, chaired by John McFall, has found that women are even more poorly represented at a senior level in the financial sector than in the rest of the economy.

Although the committee stops short of declaring that women would have prevented the collapse of banks such as Lehman Brothers, it argues that greater numbers of women in boardrooms would create a more interrogative culture – something many City experts, including Sir David Walker, argue was lacking in the run-up to the banking crisis.

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The "boys' club" culture at the helm of many banks has frequently been blamed for the meltdown as white, middle-class male board members from similar backgrounds failed to adequately challenge strategies and appeared more interested in reaching a comfortable, early consensus on key decisions.

McFall said: "Diversity at the top is one way to challenge potentially dangerous 'group-think'. We are not saying that had women been in charge, the crisis wouldn't have happened, but we are highlighting the fact that women are poorly represented in the financial sector, particularly at senior level.

"Moreover, it can only surely be in the interests of financial institutions themselves to try to boost female representation at senior level and thus try to embed diversity and challenge more deeply into the culture of banking."

The committee points out that while just over 50 per cent of financial sector employees are female, most women are in junior positions.

Last year, it was calculated that only 9 per cent of board members at FTSE 100 banks were female, down from almost 13 per cent in 2004. This statistic stands at 12.2 per cent for the Footsie as a whole. The proportion of women executive directors at FTSE 100 banks is even lower at 1-2 per cent.

Royal Bank of Scotland only has one female board member, Penny Hughes, who joined the bank this year. Lloyds Banking Group has no women non-executive directors and one female executive director, Helen Weir.

Following an extensive inquiry into diversity, the Commons committee also highlights that the gender pay gap is even more entrenched in the City than it is in the wider economy. Although female directors in the rest of the economy are paid on average 16.6 per cent less than their male counterparts, at financial firms the pay difference is 18.6 per cent.

The gap is even more marked at lower levels, with female "function heads" in the finance sector receiving 10.6 per cent less than men doing the same job compared with a 1.1 per cent gender pay gap at the same level in the rest of the economy. Even at a junior level, the gender pay gap is 18.8 per cent at financial institutions compared with 9.5 per cent elsewhere.

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"Not only are there disappointingly few women on boards, there is a significant pay gap in financial services. Most worryingly, there is evidence that the pay gap exists at entry level," said McFall. "Our report urges the City to take matters into its own hands and improve gender diversity. However, we recommend that the Treasury Committee in the next Parliament monitors this: I am sure it will want to see evidence that this voluntary approach is yielding results. If it does not, then the pressure for compulsory measures is likely to grow."

Last year, equality minister Harriet Harman called for an end to the "nightmare" of male only boards. She is among those who have suggested that had Lehman Brothers been "Lehman Sisters", then the Wall Street giant would not have crashed in 2008.