The most striking thing about Janet Yellen's appointment as the first-ever female chairman of the US Federal Reserve is how little carping there has been about her gender.
Not so long ago, the idea of a woman holding the levers that could make or break the world economy would have been unimaginable to even the most ardent feminist. Yet with Yellen's installation at the Fed, the three most important jobs on the global financial scene are occupied by women -- the other two being Angela Merkel, who has the fate of the eurozone in her hands, and Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund.
Even at this exalted level, chauvinism has not been stamped out entirely. Merkel was subjected to unprintable remarks by the buffoonish former Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi, the gist of which were that he would not put her on the guest list for a bunga-bunga party.
Lagarde's coiffure and her penchant for Hermes and Chanel are discussed in a way that a man's haircut and tailoring would never be. And according to reports from Washington, Yellen had to endure a subtle 'whispering campaign' before her appointment, doubting her 'toughness' and 'gravitas'.
Still, the idea of a woman in a powerful financial role is no longer seen as a novelty or a matter for great comment.
The term 'female boss' might soon sound as antiquated as 'lady doctor,' as people take it for granted they are as likely to find a woman in the job as a man.
Kate Grussing, managing director of Sapphire Partners, which helps companies hire and promote senior women, says: 'There has been no backlash about these appointments because these women have unquestionable qualifications and pedigrees. Janet Yellen's record has been examined with a microscope by the media. These are powerful role models and that will translate through to the corporate world.'
But will it? The message certainly seems slow in getting through to corporate Britain, and to the Fed's counterpart, the Bank of England. This is despite the self-professed enthusiasm of the male-dominated financial establishment to foster top female talent.
Among elite FTSE100 companies, the departure of Angela Ahrendts from Burberry, announced yesterday, takes the number of female chief executives to just two: Alison Cooper of Imperial Tobacco, and Carolyn McCall of EasyJet. Admittedly, Moya Greene of Royal Mail will likely soon make it three.
Lord Davies, the former chief executive of Standard Chartered, has had some success with his government-backed initiative to raise the percentage of women on FTSE100 boards to 25pc by 2015, from its current level of 19pc.
But the vast majority of new female appointments to the boardroom are non-executives.
Women executive directors are far more heavily outnumbered by their male colleagues, accounting for a mere 6.1pc of the total.
FTSE 100 chairmen have a mantra on this. They all say they want more women on their boards. Unfortunately, they all argue, it is virtually impossible to find high calibre candidates, and they are unwilling to indulge in 'tokenism'.
Critics counter this is only because they disregard credible women from outside the corporate mainstream.
Dr Ruth Sealy of the Cranfield School of Management, one of the authors of the Female FTSE board report, said it is 'disappointing' that female entrepreneurs, academics and civil servants are still not being considered for FTSE board positions.
Cranfield and Sapphire have helpfully compiled a list of 100 Women to Watch identifying those 'poised and ready' for a boardroom position.
The Institute of Directors has just recruited Lisa Buckingham as its new senior consultant on diversity.
But the Bank of England has also had difficulty recruiting women to its Monetary Policy Committee, which has been all-male for three years and only one woman, Dame Clara Furse, has a berth on the Financial Policy Committee. Governor Mark Carney did recently appoint Charlotte Hogg as chief operating officer.
The fact Hogg took a substantial salary cut is perhaps a clue to the roadblock: the pay is not tempting to senior economists of either gender working in the commercial banks.
Despite the seemingly glacial progress, Kate Grussing remains confident change will come. 'I am optimistic, because there are dozens of women leading very big divisions in blue chip companies. They are less visible than the chief executives, but they are in positions of power.'
On the lower branches of the corporate tree, however, there is still a significant gap between men and women. Research by the Chartered Management Institute earlier this year found male managers earned 25pc more in salary than women and that senior male managers received an average bonus of pounds sterling 63,700, compared with pounds sterling 36,270 for women.
Overall, full time women employees only put 80p in their purse for every pounds sterling 1 that finds its way into male wallets.
So while Janet Yellen's appointment was a giant leap at the Fed, it may only have been a small step for the rest of womankind.
(c)2013 Daily Mail (London)
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Distributed by MCT Information Services
Original headline: Can women win equality battle?
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