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To save the economy, we have to change the macho City

IN 1999, Ricky Martin was top of the charts, the millennium bug threatened world stability and the dotcom boom was never going to end. It was also the year that Karen Gill and Maxine Benson set up Everywoman, a business designed to help women entrepreneurs set up their own businesses. <br /><br />The idea was borne out of their own problems convincing banks to invest in them, despite their vast experience. There are only so many patronising male bank managers that two women can take, it seems. A decade later &ndash; Everywoman celebrates its 10th birthday today &ndash; they have 37,000 members, and the two women&rsquo;s work has made them regular advisors to the government and earned them MBEs in the most recent new year&rsquo;s honours list. <br /><br />Now, they work with corporations as well as entrepreneurs, helping blue-chip companies develop female leaders and harness female talent, offer mentoring and coaching, organise conferences and networking events and run a high-profile award ceremony &ndash; the eighth took place last week.<br /><br />There is nobody who understands the role of women in business today more than these two. They say things have improved over the last 10 years &ndash; a decade ago, if you asked most people to name a female businessperson they would mention Anita Roddick and then stop, while these days there&rsquo;s a whole host with a media profile. But it&rsquo;s still fair to say that we still have a long way to go. <br /><br /><strong>BONUS PROBLEM</strong><br />The mention of yet another piece of research showing that in some City firms men&rsquo;s bonuses are five times higher than women&rsquo;s still stirs them to righteous indignation. Inequality is still alive and well in British business, so what is the problem? At the high-end, says Gill, it&rsquo;s simple: &ldquo;When women look into those boardrooms they see the long-hours, the high-risk, aggressive, alpha-male culture and they decide that they don&rsquo;t want to be a part of that.&rdquo; <br /><br />The lack of diversity in the boardroom is not only a question of fairness &ndash; in the modern British economy it&rsquo;s an issue of performance. &ldquo;All that we have in this country is our people, and we have some of the most creative people in the world, but we have to make the most of them. At the moment we don&rsquo;t,&rdquo; says Benson.&nbsp; <br /><br />&ldquo;Everybody knows that you do better if your company matches the make-up of your customer base, and that doesn&rsquo;t happen in the corporate world. Even in retailing, where 80 per cent of the customers are women. We spoke to a female in retail recently who told us that her male boss had said: &ldquo;Let&rsquo;s have a focus group to find out what the customers want, and she just said: &lsquo;I am your customer! Ask me! We don&rsquo;t need to have a focus group!&rsquo;&rdquo; <br /><br />Gill adds that all the research shows that diverse companies are more creative and successful: &ldquo;Diversity is not just a fuzzy buzz-word, you have to become diverse to make money.&rdquo;<br /><br />The current financial crisis means that we have an opportunity to really change the country&rsquo;s business culture, they say, but they fear the City&rsquo;s desire to get back to business as usual means that we are missing a massive opportunity. &ldquo;We are brushing the debt question under the table,&rdquo; says Gill, &ldquo;but how are we ever going to pay it off?&nbsp; And we still have the same old guys at the top. We need to make changes.&rdquo; <br /><br />The problem is that there are too many men from the same backgrounds sitting in boardrooms. Not just men who went to the same schools, but who are in the same golf-clubs too. &ldquo;There&rsquo;s a particular problem with the people who run the economy &ndash; they&rsquo;ve screwed up and they need to change,&rdquo; says Gill. &ldquo;This is not just a gender issue: the whole culture at the top of the City tree is unattractive to many people of both genders. In many cases, men want change as much as women&rdquo;.<br /><br /><strong>SOMETHING RADICAL</strong><br />It begs the question of whether businesses should take positive action to get women into senior positions. &ldquo;It can&rsquo;t be tokenism,&rdquo; insists Benson. &ldquo;The thing is that in a knowledge-based economy, you can&rsquo;t afford to waste the talent. Employers should think: &lsquo;We&rsquo;ve invested in this person&rsquo;, they shouldn&rsquo;t just let them go and waste all that money. Even if you have them working two days a week, that is better than wasting all that knowledge and investment.&rdquo;<br /><br />She adds: &ldquo;The women who have got into senior positions in big corporations have to stand up and to speak about the issues. Harriet Harman gets headlines, but if she is the only one then it is a joke.&rdquo; Gill agrees: &ldquo;The other women at the top have to join in. Too many of them get to the top and then pull up the ladder. Nobody&rsquo;s saying: &lsquo;Let us run it&rsquo;, rather, they&rsquo;re saying: &lsquo;Let us in&rdquo;, and let us help&rsquo;&rdquo;. <br /><br />&ldquo;Sometimes,&rdquo; says Maxine, &ldquo;it takes something radical to bring about what will look totally natural in the future.&rdquo; She gives the example of the suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, who threw herself in front of the King&rsquo;s horse at the 1913 Derby. &ldquo;It was necessary in those days, but who would possibly say these days that we shouldn&rsquo;t be equal? Of course we should.&rdquo; <br /><br />&ldquo;Not that we&rsquo;re saying we should do anything so radical,&rdquo; laughs Gill. &ldquo;Actually, maybe we should throw ourselves across the boardroom table. That would make them take notice.&rdquo;<br /><br /><strong>EVERYWOMEN</strong> FAST FACTS<br />&bull; Karen Gill and Maxine Benson met in Australia while travelling and had been friends for nearly 20 years when they set up Everywoman in 1999. <br /><br />&bull; They both worked in the travel and hospitality industry &ndash; Maxine Benson with the American airline World Airways, and Karen Gill with InterContinental Hotels &ndash; before their jobs took them to different continents. <br /><br />&bull; Between them they have experience of working in Europe, the USA, Middle East and Asia Pacific.<br /><br />&bull; They started working with the government in 2000, advising on equality issues. <br /><br />&bull; They were both appointed MBEs in the 2009 New Year Honours, in recognition of their service to women&rsquo;s enterprise. <br /><br />&bull; Ten years to the day after it launched, Everywoman now has 37,000 members.<br />