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Ian Cowie: we need more superior women in charge

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Ian Cowie: we need more superior women in charge

News that sex pest MPs may be stripped of their seats demonstrates that the Harvey Weinstein backlash, which - as reported here last year - claimed the scalp of investment trust guru Sam Isaly, is one of the biggest changes in business and politics seen in our lifetime.

Last week’s ‘Predators’ Club scandal confirmed many folks’ worst fears about City sleaze and reminded me of a similar event I attended more than 30 years ago. Here and now, it also shows how financial morality and some key investment trust decision-makers have changed over the decades.

Back then, the bash I went to as a cub reporter was a black-tie dinner at the Cafe Royal in Regent Street, supposed to raise money for charity. Scantily-clad women fetched brandy and cigars as about a hundred men gorged and sluiced our way through dinner beneath chandeliers and many mirrors.

But the object that dominated this large, smoke-filled room was a boxing ring at its centre. Every now and then, a woman in a sandwich board and not much else would prance about the ring, apparently to reveal that round two would indeed follow round one, and so on, much as you might expect without prompting.

Sexist though this certainly was, the thing that bothered me most was its snobbery and racism. I felt sorry for the skinny young men from East End boxing clubs battering each other for the entertainment of fat old boys betting on the outcome.

Amid the roar of the drunks and the smell of the cigars, I remember lots of cash changing hands. It was a repulsive scene. I left as soon as i could and never went back.

But in those distant days not only was smoking in dining rooms, offices and on the Tube perfectly legal - so was insider trading. True, dealing ahead of price-sensitive stock market announcements was frowned upon but it wasn’t a criminal offence until a tentative prohibition in 1985 was tightened up in 1993.

Needless to say, women were rarer than men with beards on most boards of directors in those days. Which brings me to the good news. I am delighted to report progress in a more enlightened part of the fund management industry that runs about £175 billion in assets, mostly on behalf of individual shareholders.

The proportion of female directors of investment trusts has doubled in the last five years from one in 10 to one in five. They still have some way to go to catch up with Britain's biggest companies in the FTSE 100 stock market benchmark index where one in four directors is female.

Annabel Brodie-Smith, a director of the Association of Investment Companies (AIC), told me: ‘This is an issue close to my heart. We have made progress but there is clearly room for further improvement.’

About the same time as those predators were pawing bottoms and breasts at that Dorchester sleaze ball this month, the AIC was pointing the way to a better future by example. The trade body for 389 investment trusts in this 150 year-old industry appointed Rachel Beagles as chairman and Elizabeth Scott also joined its board of directors.

Both are enormously experienced. Among many other qualifications, Beagles happens to be a non-executive director of BlackRock Emerging Europe (BEEP) and Scott is a Neddy at Fidelity China Special Situations (FCSS).

Your humble correspondent is happy to be a shareholder at both. BEEP is up 33% over the last year and FCSS has advanced by 10% since I invested last October and tipped it here.

Some sceptics might argue it makes no difference if women are represented on boards of directors in fund management but I disagree. The American poet William Ross Wallace was right to write: ‘the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world’.

He could have added that it can also help to keep a balanced sense of perspective when considering complex problems, such as assessing risk and reward. Trading rooms in the City are notoriously testosterone-driven places but retail funds for individual savers might be more effective at implementing long-term investment strategies if the better half of humanity were better represented at the top.

One boss of mine, who happened to be a woman, once demanded to know if I believed in female equality after I had made some characteristically inappropriate joke. I said, no, all things considered I was more of a believer in female superiority.

It is even possible that the global financial crisis might not have happened if more hands-that-rocked-cradles had also been looking after our life savings. The sooner the rest of the City stops leering and follows the AIC lead the better.

Here is a complete list of Ian Cowie’s stock market investments. It is not financial advice nor is any recommendation implied.

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