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Women in the top ranks of banking and enterprise: good for the economy

A brilliant Italian economist, Lucrezia Reichlin, is one of the candidates for deputy governor of the Bank of England, according to a story that ran in Corriere della Sera a few days ago, even before Reichlin’s name started circulating around the Italian Ministry of the Economy and the new Renzi Government. Italian Government aside, this is good news regardless of how it ends up, because the governor of this prestigious British institution, Mark Carney, values merit (not nationality) and so will give due consideration to a woman of such experience and expertise. Indeed, reports say that there are three other women on the list of candidates for deputy governor, and Reichlin teaches at the London Business School, is on the board of directors of Unicredit, was once director-general of research for the ECB, and is a commentator for well-respected newspapers. Her innovative blend of technical/financial skills and feminine wisdom make for a valuable combination and backs up a rising trend of recent times, with a woman, Janet Ellen, leading the Federal Reserve, an other, Bodil Andersen, leading the Bank of Denmark, and yet another, Christine Lagarde, heading up the IMF after having also served as France’s Minister of the Economy. In the worlds of both finance and enterprise, the presence of women (think, too, of such names as Emma Marcegaglia at the head of BusinessEurope, the European association of national business federations, after having led the Italian federation, Confindustria, or Susanna Camusso at the helm of the Italian trade union CGIL) can lead to radical change in the underlying culture of the business world and to a new and better sensitivity to the issues of both individuals and communities. In these times in which we are seeing an end to the perverse trilogy of business, speculation and greed in the wake of an increasing emphasis on a “fair economy”, women will help to enrich the landscape of strategies and decisions and give rise to a more approachable culture of enterprise, but also to greater return on investment. Indeed, a recent study by Rothenstein Kass, the US advisory firm, has noted that investment funds run by women during these years of the Great Crisis posted above-average levels of profit (4.6% more than funds run by men). Why? Because women study the markets more deeply, evaluate investments more carefully and with greater deliberation, take risks after more careful consideration, and seek to immediately correct any mistakes they should make. In a recent article in Corriere della Sera (on 17 February), Ennio Caretto quoted Whitney Tilson, managing partner of the hedge fund Kase Capital Management, who said, “Preventing women from working in the financial markets is like preventing the tallest athletes from playing basketball.”

If we shift our attention from the top flights of finance and institutions and onto Italian enterprise and government, we see that this trend of taking advantage of the unique skills and qualities of women is taking hold here as well, as confirmed by the figures from a study by OCAP, SDA Bocconi’s observatory on change in public administration, which were published in Corriere della Sera (on 16 February) and which show that women in the top ranks of the national ministries accounted for 43% of the total in 2012 (vs. 34.5% in 2007), as well as 39.5% in local government (35% in 2007) and 36.3% in regional government (30.1% in 2007), for an average growth rate of 25% over the six years. This is a profound shift, and probably a good change in culture, for a public sector which still suffers from underlying negative trends (e.g. legislative formalism, a love of procedural complexity, little or no emphasis on the efficiency or efficacy of measures implemented or even on their formal validity) that are scarcely in line with the needs of an open, dynamic and competitive economy or with the growing needs of quality in public services. Now, the end of the era of the old-fashioned bureaucrat and an increase in the accountability of public officials could do much to drive change.

Things are changing in the business world, too. In 2008, a study by ManagerItalia showed that there was a total of 14,550 female managers, as compared to 104,564 men, i.e. a female population of just 12.2%. In 2012, the situation has improved to 16,853 women and 99,342 men, for an increase to 14.5%. Here, too, the shift was facilitated by the Great Crisis, with the number of men falling by 5,222 while the number of women increased by just 2,303. Generational change also played a part, with competent, competitive women—backed by good university educations (and university professors will confirm that women make the best students)—were there to take advantage.

Rules on mandatory female quotas on the boards of publicly listed enterprises has also been an important driver of this trend towards greater female presence in positions of responsibility, and the increasingly common trend of “diversity management” has facilitated this change as well. The clear results of these processes confirm the validity of this strategy. The shift is being seen more in large organisations than in small ones, and more in the service industry than in manufacturing, but the “glass ceiling” of the 1980s that kept women from progressing in their careers has been cracked wide open and will soon be torn down completely for the good of all.