Would women make a better job of the economy?

March 8, 2009 5:06 pm

By Rachel ReevesTreasury Select Committee

Perhaps it is some comfort for women that none of those dragged before the Treasury Committee for a mauling in recent weeks have been women. But with only one female member of the committee, women have had little opportunity to call the bankers to account.

There is no telling whether women would have made a better job of managing the economy. But according to recent research 90% of executives agreed that a culture encouraging excessive risk-taking contributed to the financial crisis. More than 80% believe failure to understand risk was fuelled by a macho culture, while 80% thought gender balance affects culture, and three quarters believe senior executives advocating caution would be regarded as wimpish. If these views are right, then more women at the top might have been useful.

Going forward we need more diverse and balanced boardrooms where cultural norms and expectations are challenged. Whether it’s having community stakeholders, more women or workers on the board – we need to change the way old boys’ networks dominate corporate life. Regulators should look at the ability of the board to challenge the usual ways of doing things. If the ‘talent’ on the board is picked from a small pool of identikit men, it probably isn’t doing its job properly.

In my constituency, Leeds West, I see the recession beginning to bite. And it angers me that the men and women in Leeds West, who have played no role in designing the economic architecture in which they have to navigate their lives, are left paying a high price.

Average earnings in Leeds West, at £15k are around 60% of the national average. That is, the average family is living in poverty. Employment among men is high in the building trade. Women tend to work in admin or services, often in the city centre, a couple of miles away. Those working shifts, temping, or working part-time are seeing their hours cut. And it is primarily women in these jobs. Even if still in work, women are seeing their earnings and ability to support their families fall. Leeds West also has a history of loan sharks targeting vulnerable families – often single mums and pensioners. Although a huge amount has been done to drive out the sharks, as banks turn away more people, more will fall victim to loan sharks offering quick and easy loans with interest rates which bear no resemblance to the cost of money.

The most striking thing about this recession is how unfairly the costs are shared. Golden parachutes for those who caused the problem. Unemployment, repossessions and doorstep lenders for the unwitting victims of their actions. Women, with lower savings, incomes and pensions stand to suffer most. And, this recession will be different for women, with more working than ever before. But with redundancies among women in less high profile, non-unionised industries, the experiences of women get less coverage and policy focus. Support for unemployed women needs to be as good as for men.

Research by MORI suggests women are more worried about the recession than men. It is crucial that politicians understand and are responding to the challenges faced by women. And, as we begin to think about what the future economy might look like, we should ensure that a more diverse economy includes more women in positions of authority for a more balanced and sustainable economy.

Read the government report ‘Women and the Downturn‘.

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