Winners & Losers 2009: Big winner - women

It wasn't called a 'he-cession' for nothing: why more women kept their jobs.

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“Clearly, something needs to change,” a disgusted Howard Archer, chief European and U.K. economist at IHS Global Insight, told reporters back in February, commenting on the cabal of battle-weary British bank chiefs called to testify before parliament’s Treasury Select Committee. “You can argue that the men have made a right mess of it, and now the ladies should have a go.”

It’s been a popular sentiment this year. Take Iceland. Since the island nation’s devastating economic meltdown, it’s the ladies who have been directing clean-up — chief among them, the country’s first female prime minster, Johanna Sigurdardottir, who vowed to exercise “prudence and responsibility” in rebuilding the country’s financial system, where her male predecessors did not. Two more women, Elín Sigfúsdóttir and Birna Einarsdóttir, were recruited to head two newly nationalized banks.

Meanwhile, around the world, a seismic gender shift in the job market has taken hold. In Canada, a staggering 71% of the roughly 400,000 jobs lost since October 2008 belonged to men — while employment rates among women remained virtually unchanged. Reports from the U.S., Britain and elsewhere tell the same story — prompting commentators the world over to joke, a little cloyingly, that the Great Recession was really more of a he-cession.

One theory put forward to explain the job-loss divide is that women are simply cheaper. Even at the dawn of 2010, women still make, on average, just 70% of what their male colleagues do. This long tradition of being “shamefully underpaid,” may be suddenly, amazingly, paying off, says Catherine Kaputa, a Wall Street veteran and author of The Female Brand: Using the Female Mindset To Succeed in Business. “Everyone’s looking for value these days,” she recently told the London Evening Standard. “When the cost-cutters go over the compensation figures, women look like a bargain.”

Of course, there are much larger factors at work — chiefly, male dominance of certain cyclical industries. More than half of the Canadian jobs lost between October 2008 and October 2009 were in manufacturing and construction, sectors that are overwhelmingly occupied by men.

Still, it stands to reason that a greater ratio of women in the workplace means more opportunities for them to step into leadership roles, a boon for proponents of gender equity everywhere. But it’s not just about fairness. If the latest research is any indication, the economic benefits of having more women leaders are enormous.

Earlier this year, Michel Ferrary, a professor of management at France’s Ceram Business School, published a headline-grabbing paper outlining his discovery that the French companies that best weathered the financial tsunami all had one thing in common: a large proportion of female managers.

Ferrary studied companies from the CAC 40 stock index and found that the more women there were in a company’s management, the less the company’s share price fell in 2008.

Among the dozens of examples he cites, Ferrary pointed out that Hermès, the only large company on the exchange whose share price rose (up 17%), has the CAC 40’s second-largest female management team (55%). Among French banks, Ferrary compares BNP Paribas, whose share price fell by a relatively modest 39% in 2008, to Credit Agricole, whose share price tanked (down 62%). Almost 40% of BNP Paribas’s managers are women, he notes. Credit Agricole’s team, however, consists of only 16% women.

Coincidence? Ferrary thinks not. “Feminization of management seems to be a protection against financial crisis,” he said. “Several gender studies have pointed out that women behave and manage in a different way than men. They tend to avoid risk and to focus more on long-term perspective. A larger proportion of female managers balances the risk-taking behaviour of their male colleagues.”

Of course, it will take a lot more than one research paper to bridge the gender gap in the corridors of power. Still, some observers see the Great Recession as a turning point. In a piece in Foreign Policy last summer, conservative commentator Reihan Salam argued the he-cession signals the end of thousands of years of male dominance in global affairs. Because of the economic crisis, he wrote, “more people realize that the aggressive, risk-seeking behavior that has enabled men to entrench their power — the cult of macho — has now proven destructive.” True or not, what better time to test the theory.

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