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Banks: Change "Testosterone-Fuelled Culture" to Attract Women Traders

21/06/2013 15:37 | Updated 21 August 2013

Something almighty will need to change in the Square Mile if the recommendation from the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards for more women in trading floor jobs is to get anywhere, welcome though it is.

Dawn Milman-Hurst, chief executive of Equal Approach, which helps businesses with diversity, has spoken diplomatically of floors as a working environment more "attuned" to men. That puts it mildly.

They are often business bear pits, by reputation the places you see in films where overheated men, usually, shout and gesticulate, usually, to make mouth-watering deals involving huge sums of money as they trade in assets a long way derived, usually, from anything actually solid and tangible.

In addition to sore throats, they can be a route to great wealth or, as the case of rogue trader Nick Leeson demonstrated, huge calamity. His actions precipitated the collapse of Barings Bank in the 1990s.

History tells us that in a rising market, as recklessness seeps in, traders involve themselves in ever more exotic financial instruments until a point of implosion arrives leaving everyone dazed in the wreckage. Out of control traders (men) are a hallmark of global financial crises.

The thinking implicit from MPs and peers on the commission is that testosterone-lite women would help produce more balanced judgements. It makes sense. Research by Dr John Coates, a neuroscientist at Cambridge University, suggests that high testosterone levels cause mood swings during market bubbles and crashes. Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, has also made plain her view that a male culture of financial risk taking is at the heart of current problems.

It is also, of course, a matter of equal opportunity to give women places on trading floors, no less pressing than getting more women into meaningful boardroom jobs, another ambition moving at the rate of an ill snail in the UK.

But the gulf between intentions and reality can sometimes be huge, and it may be here.

Nobody can doubt the good intentions of the commission, or the sense in what they are suggesting. But I doubt women will flock to trading floors without a significant change in the culture that exists on them.

Anybody who works in the City knows that floors take no prisoners and are happy with that image. They are hard, often quite mentally brutal working environments. There is only winning or losing under huge pressure.

Women are just as capable of taking pressure, of course. Indeed, as many juggle the responsibilities of work and children, arguably more so. The question is not whether they have the skills, but whether they have the will for a grim working environment without visible reforms.

Interestingly, the commission chose to stress that "the culture on the trading floor" was "overwhelmingly male" rather than stress the actual numbers. Cultures are harder to change. What banks will need to ensure is that women are not going to be encouraged into the same environments of excess which got us into the mess that led to the Parliamentary commission in the first place. That would hardly be progress for the City and only a very hollow sort of gender victory.