February 1 was a date to celebrate for women in business everywhere. It happened to be the day that water group Severn Trent became the first large UK quoted company to be led by an all-female team by appointing Helen Miles as chief financial officer. That’s certainly worthy of celebration – but not what I had in mind.
Instead, I was thinking of Emma Tucker starting work as editor of the Wall Street Journal. It means that for the first time ever, women are in charge of what I believe to be the three most influential organs of financial commentary: the Economist, Financial Times (FT) and the Wall Street Journal (WSJ).
When I commented on this on Twitter, it was the first time that one of my posts has gone viral. People pointed out many more women in positions of editorial command – Alessandra Galloni is editor in chief of Reuters, Sally Buzbee is executive editor of the Washington Post, Deborah Turness is CEO of BBC News and Current Affairs, Julie Pace is executive editor of Associated Press.
I could carry on – Victoria Newton edits the Sun, Alison Phillips edits the Daily Mirror, and indeed Jo Adetunji edits The Conversation UK. Tucker herself arrives at the WSJ after being in charge of the UK’s Sunday Times. Perhaps we should speak about female dominance rather than representation.
The effect on business
All of that is fantastic progress, and more likely to inspire other female journalists to want to be editors – after all, it’s hard to be what you can’t see. The Economist/FT/WSJ trio, though, is the most critical for women in business. Full disclosure: I wrote a weekly column for the FT for 17 years under (three) male editors, before giving up when I became a full-time academic. My final editor, Lionel Barber, was fully supportive of women’s careers – he did, after all, help to appoint Roula Khalaf as editor in January 2020 when he left.
Khalaf spoke in an interview in 2021 about taking the paper in a more female-friendly direction, striving towards a 50-50 male-female management split, as well as increasing the proportion of female columnists and subscribers. I took a look at the prestigious Lunch with the FT profile that appears each weekend, for instance, which featured 101 men to 56 women in the three years before Khalaf took over, while the divide has been 93:64 in the three years since.
Meanwhile at the Economist, where Zanny Minton Beddoes took over in 2015, the keywords “women in leadership” yielded 30 articles in the eight years before her appointment. In the eight years since, there have been 53.
More women at the top increases the likelihood of women rising through the ranks. Are these appointments more important in this respect than the increased number of women on boards? I think so. I was one of the small group of women who, in 2010, under the leadership of the financier Baroness Helena Morrissey, founded the 30% Club, which successfully campaigned to raise the proportion of women on boards.
The proportion of women on FTSE 100 company boards back in 2010 was 12%, having been flat for over a decade. These days it is over 40%. But that’s only 100 companies out of 2,000 listed on the London Stock Exchange, and doesn’t include private businesses. There over 5 million businesses in the UK, with 45,000 employing more than 50 people, and no reliable data available on their gender progress.
Even if we had that data, that’s just businesses in the UK – these three publications cover the world. The FT, WSJ and Economist are so much more influential than the women that lead the UK’s businesses.
The work of the 30% Club – which has gone from focusing on board-level appointments to challenging the makeup of the executive committee, and the pipeline behind it – has shown me that the thing that matters most in trying to change any inequity is to give it the oxygen of publicity. Women leading the most respected financial commentary in the world can’t fail to help other women in this regard.
Women in business are more likely to be known by women in the media, something that academics call “homophily” (the tendency for people who are similar to seek out each other’s company). Success breeds success, so being appointed to these jobs means that the women taking them are more likely to meet other successful women, a concept known as “preferential attachment”.
The high-profile nature of these appointments will also have drawn the attention of others to the merits of a woman editor. Arguably the biggest change that the appointment of Minton Beddoes made was that Khalaf and now Tucker were able to follow.
Strangely, round about now seems a popular time for female leaders of major financial and business media organisations to start work. Minton Beddoes started in her current role on February 2 2015, Khalaf on January 20 2020.
Returning to Severn Trent, Helen Miles does not join until April 1, so that is when the company’s all-female top team will get going. I am sure that they will be pleased that their progress, and the value that they will hopefully deliver to all their stakeholders, will be closely observed – by women.
Heather McGregor does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.