Lehman Sisters?

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(334)

A steady stream of recent articles blames "macho behaviour" for the financial crisis. Judith Orr challenges the assumption that women would do it better.

Would the economic crisis have happened if women had been in charge - if instead of Lehman Brothers it had been Lehman Sisters? This has been a recurring argument in the pages of analysis of recent events.

It has gone alongside speculation that this will be the first recession in which more women than men are affected. The contradiction for women today is that precisely because they are in the workforce in bigger numbers than ever - the employment rate for working age women peaked last year at just over 70 percent - they will be hit harder by this recession than others in the past.

In a report published by the TUC in January of this year, Women and Recession, Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC, called this the "equal opportunities recession". It is affecting all sections of the economy, and women are more than ever working in all sectors.

Any economic crisis will have a disproportionate affect on the poorest sections of society - those that have the least to fall back on in terms of savings, pensions and access to cheap credit. Of those in paid employment, women are more likely to be low paid. TUC figures show that 16.1 percent of men in work are low paid compared with 29 percent of women. Two thirds of workers on the minimum wage are women. The average gender pay gap is 17.1 percent for full-time workers and 36.6 percent for part-time workers.

The gender balance of those losing jobs in this crisis is not yet clear. It is true that job losses in the car industry and manufacturing in general, with largely male workforces, have made headline news. Apart from Woolworths, job losses in retail and services, where women workers predominate, have not had the same impact on the media. The TUC reports, "Since the start of 2008 the male working age unemployment rate has risen from 5.6 to 6.6 percent, while female unemployment has shown a smaller increase from 5 percent to 5.6 percent. But in more recent months the rate of increase between men and women has become comparable - from June to October there was a 0.2 percent increase in the national unemployment rate for both men and women."

There is no doubt that many women workers fear that their jobs are seen by employers as less important because there is still the assumption in society that women are not the main breadwinners. What is the reality? Lone parents - of whom 90 percent are women - now make up a quarter of all families. Even in families with two working parents, women's income is significant, representing over half the family income in 21 percent of all working couples.

Any attempts to cut back on welfare provision will disproportionately affect women. The government decree that people on single parent benefits will have their payments stopped when their youngest child reaches 11 (with plans to bring this down to seven) is an extra burden on women, especially at a time of steeply rising unemployment.

While it is important to understand the impact of the recession on women, and how it is shaped by discrimination and oppression, much of the speculation about the subject has been dominated by a view that sees gender as the key factor in understanding the system. This is epitomised by the Observer's business editor, Ruth Sunderland, who has referred to "the macho, tooth and claw brand of capitalism that caused the crunch in the first place". The implication is of course that there is an alternative, gentle, feminine capitalism that would bring harmony and wealth all round. This would be laughable if it wasn't being taken so seriously. In Iceland two collapsed banks and the new government headed by women are being heralded as "the end of the age of testosterone".

A spread in the Observer in January brought together a panel of businesswomen to discuss the crisis under the headline "We Cannot Return to the Old Macho Ways". Here one "independent investment banker expert", Dr Ros Altmann, said one cause of the crisis was "excess of machismo…there was not the cooperative thinking there would be in a female environment…there would have been a natural tendency for a woman to say, 'Let's take the longer-term view.'" Women have a "caring mindset, a nurturing mindset, a mindset that says let's worry about the future".

The basis for some of these claims is research carried out by a former Deutsche Bank trader, Dr John Coates, and a neuroscientist, Professor Joe Herbert, both from the University of Cambridge. They measured levels of testosterone and cortisol, which is associated with stress, in 17 male traders at a London bank. Traders with the highest morning testosterone levels were likely to do best in the day's trading. That success pumped their levels higher, so they behaved more aggressively and did better still.

However, a secondary effect apparently showed that "a previous win in the markets leads to increased, and eventually irrational, risk taking in the next round of trading." Then when things go wrong, cortisol kicks in and the trader's confidence crashes. According to this research, "People get paralysed by the fear. [It] takes over so they are no longer thinking rationally. They are no longer doing the things that they should be doing to make money." And so the conclusion is that male bankers' chemical swings are responsible for booms and busts!

Sexism

No one can deny that men dominate the big financial institutions. In 2007 a mere 3.6 percent of executive directorships on the boards of Britain's FTSE 100 companies were women, and women made up only 14.5 percent of the 110 female non-executive directors.

Those women who do get jobs are discriminated against. The gender pay gap in the City of London is 44 percent - double the national average. Women who work in the City also regularly complain about the "macho culture", where women are sexually harassed by male colleagues and managers. It has become common for corporate clients to be entertained with visits to lap dancing clubs. Many such cases have led to employment tribunals where women have brought sex discrimination allegations against big name banks.

The Bank of England even held a seminar in January this year entitled "Dress for Success", where women workers were informed that "skirts and shoes must be the same colour" and to "always wear some sort of make-up, even if it's just lipstick". This is certainly not comparable to the corporate world of the 1960s but it does show an environment still steeped in sexism.

But should we care about whether women are in the top jobs, or whether they get the same inflated bonuses as their male counterparts? The lives these women lead mean they are in a different world to the majority of working women. When asked about the impact of the crisis, Gill Riley, a managing director, said, "My Porsche would go before my staff." For the vast majority of women workers the new choices they face because of the crisis are rather more prosaic. Yet while we may not have any feeling of solidarity with women city traders, we have to understand that the discrimination they face is still part of women's oppression.

Oppression and class are knitted together under capitalism. Women's oppression is rooted in and grew out of class society. It is shaped by class divisions but it is not the same as class exploitation. So women are discriminated against just by the fact of being women, but all women do not suffer the same oppression. The nature and experience of oppression is shaped by women's class position.

So if there were more women in top positions it would reflect a less sexist society. We don't celebrate the fact that the higher you look in society the fewer women you see - not just in business, but in politics and the legal system as well. No woman should be barred from any job merely because she is a woman.

But does it follow that if every layer of the ruling class had 50 percent women in all positions of power - from the City of London to Westminster - capitalism would be a nicer system? Would it mean that boom and bust would be banished as oestrogen counterbalanced testosterone? Would the women in the boardroom be standing up for more maternity leave and higher pay for their sisters mopping the floor in the company canteen?

The answer is a decisive no.

The proof is there from the small number of women who have broken through.

For example, in 1997 the Labour landslide doubled the number of women MPs to 120, which meant there was the greatest ever number of women MPs in parliament (though the house remained 82 percent male). Of the women MPs 101 were Labour and they were famously described as "Blair's babes" (a crudely sexist description that was rarely challenged). More importantly, however, was what this record number of women actually did with their newfound power. The first test came up fast. A bill to make a cut in single parent benefits was proposed. There could have been no doubt that the recipients of this benefit were some of the most impoverished and vulnerable women in British society. Did the ranks of the newly elected Labour women MPs denounce this attack on their working class sisters as an outrage more akin to the ideas of the Tories who had just been so soundly defeated?

Of the 47 MPs who opposed the bill, only nine were women. Ten years on, New Labour women politicians pay lip service to defending women's rights, but in reality time and time again they have played a vital part in delivering the neoliberal project of privatisation and cuts in welfare provision with a devastating impact on the whole working class, but especially on women.

History shows that when women are in positions of class power they behave no differently to men. They gain material benefits that mean their lives are not comparable to the lives of working class women. Home secretary Jacqui Smith claims a £24,000 allowance merely for staying in her sister's spare room - this is more than most full-time women workers earn annually. Such women have no common interests with working class women or men.

However "macho" the culture on city trading floors undoubtedly is, hormones are not to blame for the crisis; capitalism is. We live in a world where the majority of women and men are forced to sell their ability to labour to an elite minority who appear to maintain their wealth and power through crash and boom.

The financial markets see overpaid individuals betting on the future price of crops that will be planted by poverty stricken farmers thousands of miles away living on a dollar a day. The overpaid individuals don't want to buy the crop; they don't even care what the crop is - it is the profit from the transaction that drives them. It's this drive for profit at the core of the system that creates competition and chaos. No one is in control, as the recent market collapses and failing bailouts show.

As working class communities are reeling from daily closures and job losses, women ministers have even tried to spin the crisis as an opportunity for women. Cabinet minister Tessa Jowell has said, "As we replenish the talent pool of this country, we will also change its gender complexion."

A similar line was taken by some feminists in the mid-1980s as hundreds of printers lost their jobs when News International moved to Wapping, where journalists could directly input onto the page electronically. They heralded this as a new dawn for women workers who had the skills to replace the male dominated print trade. It was true that women had been excluded from the printing industry, but to see the battle just in terms of gender was to miss the fact that when the printers, an important and militant battalion of the working class, were smashed, it was a setback for the whole working class. Their defeat opened the door for the Tories to continue their devastation of working class communities across the country.

So when deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman says, "We will not let women be the sacrificial lamb of recession," the implication is, of course, that they are happy to sacrifice men. We should reject any such attempt to put a feminist gloss on New Labour's anti working class policies.

There is a lesson for us today. We can't let our side be divided, whether by race, nationality or gender. Whether you are man who has been sacked by Corus steel or a woman who has been sacked by Woolworths, you have more in common with each other than with any of the politicians and bosses whose only aim is to make us pay for their crisis.