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Christina Patterson

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Why Wrecked Economies Need More Parental Leave

Posted: 10/19/11 06:36 PM ET

If the protesters camping out at St Paul's, and on Wall Street, and in Madrid, and Amsterdam, or in any of the other 900 or so cities around the world where protests have taken off, want more fuel for their fire, they should watch a DVD of a film called Inside Job. The film, which aims to offer "a comprehensive analysis of the global financial crisis", and won this year's Academy Award for the best documentary, consists of interviews with "financial insiders". They're all in crisp shirts, and smart ties. They're all in very nice suits. And they're all -- or very nearly all -- men.

It's hard to watch it and not think that these are creatures from another planet. Not to think, in other words, that some men really are from Mars. It wasn't just the set of those jaws, which looked clenched in the way that jaws clench when someone is always used to getting their own way. It wasn't just the voices, which had the special tone voices have when they're used to being obeyed. It was the eyes. Eyes of people whose mistakes had cost millions of people their homes, and their jobs, and who didn't give a monkey's ass.

When Lynne Featherstone, who has the job title "equalities minister", which would probably make these men think she worked not for a Conservative-led coalition but for Castro, said at the Lib Dem conference that it was the "terrible decisions" made by men in senior positions which had led to the "the mess the world is in", an awful lot of people went mad. If they had been women, you might say they went hysterical, but the people who went not hysterical but mad were men. They said her remarks were "ridiculous" and "completely wrong". They didn't say which bits of her remarks were ridiculous and wrong. They didn't say, for example, whether they thought the decisions that had wrecked the global economy were not terrible, but good, or whether they thought that the people who had made them were really women.

It's possible that some people, and particularly some Tories, might not want to listen to anything that an "equalities minister" says, but they might want to listen to a former finance minister of a leading world economy, one, say, who now runs an organisation that exists to foster global financial stability and international trade.

Christine Lagarde, who has recently taken over the running of the IMF from a man who didn't seem to be able to meet a woman without asking her to pop his penis in her mouth, told this newspaper that "gender-dominated environments are not good... particularly in the financial sector, where there are too few women". In these places, she said, "men have a tendency to show how hairy chested they are". She "honestly" thought, she said, "that there should never be too much testosterone in one room".

If she, or anyone else, wants to keep away from testosterone, then she, or anyone else, had better keep away not just from finance, but also from politics, business and almost all positions of power.

She had better, for example, keep away from the Cabinet which, until Monday, had only four women in it, and from FTSE-100 listed companies, where only 5 per cent of executive directors are women, and 14 per cent of board positions are held by women, and where 14 companies have no women on their boards at all.

She'd better keep away, too, from the next 250 largest public companies, 155 of which don't have a single woman director between them. She'd better keep away from the judiciary, since only 12.9 per cent of senior judges are women. She'd better, in fact, stick to primary schools, call centres, and those bits of the public sector which still have some jobs. Perhaps it's because there were, until Monday, only four women in the Cabinet that nobody thought that cuts to the public sector, and to public services, and to childcare, and to child benefit, might make some women a bit less keen on the Conservative Party than they were before.

Perhaps that's also why somebody thought they'd better cobble together a shopping list of things the Tories could do, or say they'd do, that might cheer women up. The shopping list, which was in a secret memo leaked last month, included things like a "Green Deal", which "links to concern about the future", a "possible ban on advertising to children" and talk about "criminalising forced marriage". Women, said the memo, were "key to British growth".

It's not clear whether Adrian Beecroft, a private equity millionaire who's been acting as an adviser to the Prime Minister, thinks women are "key to British growth". It's possible that he, like the Prime Minister's "blue sky" thinker, Steve Hilton, who recently suggested abolishing maternity pay, thinks that women, when they're not thinking about forced marriage and green deals, are only interested in growing foetuses, and that foetuses aren't good for growth.

Or maybe he thinks that foetuses are only good for growth if they're nowhere near the office. In a draft report on cutting regulation to business, which has made Lynne Featherstone rather cross, he has suggested that the Government's plans to offer more "parental leave" for both parents should be scrapped.

Perhaps Beecroft agrees with Simon Murray, the chairman of Glencore (one of the FTSE-100 companies without any women on its board), who says that employing young women is "a risk" because they sometimes "get pregnant".

It's true that young women sometimes get pregnant, and it's true that that can, in the short term, be a bit of a pain for their colleagues and employers, but unless the Tories are going to suggest a ban on the human species, too, it's a pain that everyone, including private equity millionaires, is going to have to get used to.

If we want a "future" for Tories to write worried memos about, someone has to produce the humans who will be in it. If we want people to shape it who don't suddenly remember that they've forgotten half the population, we're going to have to let some people in jobs take some time off. And if we want a workplace, and a world, that's a bit less skewed by testosterone, we're going to have to have some policies that remind all employees that the propagation, feeding and education of the human species isn't the sole responsibility of women.

The US, by the way, which is where the whole "mess the world is in" started, and where so many of those men in crisp shirts made, and kept, their millions, is one of just four countries in the world that have no federal law for paid maternity leave at all. The others are Liberia, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland. I'm not at all sure you could say that it's a brilliant strategy for growth.

 

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