Ballet? But I’m not a girl!

Carole draws a parallel between the number of boys who choose to do ballet and the number of women attending a recent Investment Forum


Waiting for Daughter number two to finish her dance class the other week, I overheard a conversation between a mum and someone else’s son. Clearly this little boy had been dragged along for his sister’s drop-off ride and was in no mood for small talk. He was, nonetheless, being asked if he thought he would like to have ballet lessons, too. Incredulous to the point of downright bluntness, the young lad looked at the so-called grown-up like she was beyond stupid and told it like it was:

“I’m not a girl!”

It has to look like it’s meant for you

It’s a fairly big dance school – I would hazard over 200 students – and, as far as I know, only one boy attends. A similar scenario can be seen a mile down the road every Sunday, where seven or eight rugby pitches are in use for boys aged between five and 18 and the only girls in sight are the siblings on the sidelines. Yes, there are boys who dance. And yes, there are girls who play rugby. But, as a youngster trying to make sense of the world, you’ve got to have a pretty strong desire to take up an activity that, on the face of it, doesn’t look like it’s meant for you. Ask a five-year-old for their views on Brexit and you might not get much of a coherent answer; but as for the politics of gender identity – they’ve pretty much all got a view on that!

An investment forum mostly attended by men

This week I attended an Investment Forum for financial advisers. As one of the last to arrive I was in the privileged position of being able to assess the make-up of the group as I walked in. Of around 35 attendees two were women. I was one of them. As the day went on, I noted the following:

We listened to six speakers in total, five of which were men

 There were a number of sporting references in the talks – most of them related to (men’s) football clubs – and there was one reference to Bake Off (!)

 The Events Manager was a woman (surprise, surprise)

 Lunch was a delicious fish pie (gender unspecified, but the portion was man-sized)

I should also say that the talks were, on the whole, informative, useful and well presented. But had I been a passing female alien, I might not, at first glance, have identified with the group or thought that any of it was meant for me.

1980s-style trading floor images

There are many published surveys about the numbers of women investing and how they don’t come close to their male counterparts. A 2018 YouGov report found that one in five women currently holds an investment versus one in three men. And the relative number of women seeking financial advice is even lower. The night before this male-heavy Investment Forum I held one of my ‘Women save, men invest’ workshops at Talking Finances. When I asked my willing participants what they thought of when I said ‘investing’, some of them evoked 1980s-style trading floor images, complete with men shouting and making frantic hand gestures as deals are sealed and money lost and won. None of them thought it had anything much to do with them.

More of the female role models, less of the Sirs

Images like these are powerful (indeed, they are images of power) and can rest undisturbed for decades somewhere below our consciousness informing any number of our decisions and life choices. A number of sectors of society are slowly waking up to this – for some years now sportswomen have understood the need for female ‘role models’ at the top of their sporting game in order to generate both players and spectators in the kind of numbers required to attract the right sort of money. And now that England’s Lionesses have been taking a greater share of the headlines, there does seem to be a shift in views towards football and its appeal to both genders. I also saw recently how a number of law firms are ditching the traditional salutation ‘Dear Sirs’ in favour of either ‘Dear Sir or Madam’ (that doesn’t seem a whole lot better to me) or a perhaps more enlightened ‘Dear colleagues’ in a (some might say embarrassingly belated) attempt to appear more inclusive.

“You’re not a Feminist, are you?”

I can’t help wondering what my younger self would have made of all this. All of my teenage years happened in the eighties, which – to spell it out more to myself than to you – was between 30 and 40 years ago! At the time, my girl friends and I were utterly convinced of our equality, and if anyone had told us that we would only just now in 2020 be at the point of understanding the importance of gender identity and the role it plays in how we shape our lives, we would have assumed that the ever-present threat of a nuclear holocaust had indeed come to pass and that society had had to start all over again. As clear in our thinking as any teenager with right on their side, we would look aghast if anyone suggested that we might rely on a man to open a door for us, pay for our meal, or provide for our pension. And if any avuncular type from a generation or two above us dared to ask derisively “You’re not a Feminist, are you?”, we would reply with equal derision that Feminism was so 1970s you might as well ask if we were one of those ‘Suffragette’ sorts. In short, because we wanted so badly to be equal, we thought that wanting it was enough. Job done. Let’s move on to more important issues.

A long way from equal – especially when it comes to top finance roles

Well now, Younger Self, I regret to inform you that change has been a long time coming. In terms of equality in the workplace, an item in this week’s news provided us with a handy score card. Following a huge government-backed push it has been revealed that women now account for one third of all FTSE 100 board members – that’s the top positions in the largest 100 companies quoted on the London Stock Exchange. While that looks a long way away from equal, it was considered cause for celebration as, less than 10 years ago, the number was only 12.5%. Interestingly, however, if you look at the positions of Finance Director amongst these board members, only 15% are held by women. And there was a similar story to be found in Boris Johnson’s Cabinet shuffle – some 27% of his Cabinet members are women, while the number of Ministers within the Treasury is exactly nil.

An article on the website of the Association of Corporate Treasurers (ACT) tells me that attracting women to treasury roles (ie jobs that involve planning and overseeing the finances) in companies and organisations across all areas of the economy remains a challenge in such a male-dominated profession. You have to wonder why.

It takes time and effort to reverse a mindset

Study after study shows no difference in the innate ability of girls and boys to do maths. And yet, in maths A-level classes up and down the country there are more boys than girls and this is something that self-perpetuates as those teenagers are – consciously or unconsciously – influenced by what they see. If you don’t pursue maths at a higher level, you are unlikely to pursue a career in economics or finance (said the financial planner with a Modern Languages degree… ho hum. But you get the point).

If I’ve learned anything in the past 40 years about equality it’s that change won’t happen just because we want it to – or think that it should. Positive action is needed if we are to alter mindsets that are informed at an alarmingly early age because these mindsets take considerable time and effort to reverse. And if we don’t take positive action, scenarios will persist – like, for example, in Jersey where, this month (yes, February 2020), the Jersey Government is debating changes to the law that – unbelievably – states that a married woman may only discuss her tax affairs with Revenue Jersey if her husband has told the department that it’s okay for her to do so.

You don’t have to look like the Wolf of Wall Street

It is abundantly clear to me that we have to take steps to encourage role models, to use language, imagery and references that feel both inclusive and relevant to everyone and to challenge the status quo if we are to have any hope at all of levelling things out.

Hence the workshops and the continued attempts to both educate women in matters of long-term finance and make them feel welcome to a financial planning service that, perhaps, they hadn’t previously thought was meant for them. When we talk about investing, we need to know that this is about our futures – providing for the long term by saving and taking controlled amounts of risk to get enough growth to at least keep pace with inflation. There are various ways this can be done (for example, within a pension or a Stocks and Shares ISA) but the important bit is that you don’t have to look, act or feel like the Wolf of Wall Street to do it.

16 February 2020