Some companies are flouting rules that say the employees they choose to vote in City of London elections should reflect the makeup of their workforces.
In the elections last week, Prudential Plc sent only men to the polls to represent the insurer’s head-office employees, 48 percent of whom are women, according to the electoral register. At Deloitte LLP, women are 40 percent of its City of London payroll and 13 percent of the accounting firm’s voters. At CMS Cameron McKenna LLP, a law firm, the ratio is 56 percent to 17 percent.
Businesses have had the vote for centuries in the City of London, the oldest of the U.K. capital’s 33 municipalities.
The gender imbalance in the corporate electorate comes amid criticism that companies unfairly give votes to senior employees, rather than a representative sample from throughout their workforce. Complaints about the way the City operates have mounted since the financial crisis, because its government serves as the main lobbying group for the industry many Britons blame for the country’s economic slump.
“The City voting system needs to be fixed,” said David Pitt-Watson, former chairman of Hermes Focus Asset Management and a co-founder of the City Reform Group, a seven-month-old nonprofit campaigning for more transparency and accountability. “Nobody has taken seriously how you get the diversity among the voters that is required.”
The City, one square mile around St. Paul’s Cathedral, is the only municipality where workers representing their employers cast ballots along with residents for the council that runs the local government. Officially called the City of London Corporation, it has municipal responsibilities like cleaning the streets and issuing planning permits and also acts as a trade group, championing the interests of the U.K. financial sector to Parliament and abroad.
About 7,300 people live in the City, and 350,000 commute there to work.
Men end up with more corporate votes than women simply because more men work in the City, particularly in senior positions, said Mark Boleat, chairman of the City’s policy and resources committee.
“I am not greatly surprised if the list is biased,” Boleat said. While “there is a limit to what we can do,” he said the municipal government would conduct a review of the composition of the corporate constituency.
Over all, men are 63 percent of all employees in the City, according to statistics on the City of London Corporation’s website. The electoral register shows that men accounted for about 73 percent of those voting on behalf of businesses in last week’s election.
While the law leaves it up to employers to decide how to select who goes to the polls, it says the voters should reflect the workforce’s composition “so far as is reasonably practicable.”
At Prudential, management will review its voters before the next election “to ensure it represents more closely the composition of our workforce,” said Robin Tozer, a spokesman. CMS Cameron McKenna will do the same, according to Craig Perry, the firm’s general counsel.
Zoe Cooper, a spokeswoman for Deloitte, said the firm expects more female voters in the future because “partners and employees who are selected retain their voting right until they retire or leave the firm.”
“‘The voting list is reviewed annually to select replacements,” she said in an emailed response to questions. “As a consequence, the balance of male-female voters may not reflect the current composition of Deloitte’s workforce.”
Companies get one vote for every five workers up to 50, and an additional vote for every 50 after that.
About 190 companies with three or more votes sent no women to the polls last week, compared with about 10 that dispatched no men, according to the electoral register kept in the library of the Guildhall, where the City of London Common Council is based. Of the 100 common councilmen, 21 are women.
“This is the antithesis of a modern democracy,” said Ros Baston, a lawyer who worked for the U.K. Electoral Commission.
The lopsided electorate at some companies underscores how women don’t have a fair share of power in the City, said Ceri Goddard, chief executive officer of the Fawcett Society, the U.K.’s largest women’s rights organization.
The gap between pay for men and women is wider in the financial services sector than in any other in the country, according to a 2009 report by the U.K. Equality and Human Rights Commission. The report cited “marked and persistent sex discrimination” in the industry.
“These kind of antiquated practices belong in the dark ages,” Goddard said, calling anachronistic City customs “the opposite of what we need to rebuild a thriving economy.”
Some politicians, including John McDonnell, a member of Parliament from the Labour Party, and Green Party leader Natalie Bennett want to abolish the City government because financial companies use it to exert too much lobbying power.
City officials in December made public for the first time some details of a 1.32 billion-pound ($2 billion) investment fund they manage, revealing that 12.8 million pounds was spent on lobbying on behalf of the City in the 12 months ended March 31, 2012. The release of the information was heralded as a success by Occupy movement activists who pitched tents in the City last year and by the City Reform Group.
The City’s approach to women reflects its antiquity, Bennett said. Its boundaries are about the same as those of Londinium, established by the Romans on the bank of the River Thames more than 2,000 years ago. Some of its traditions date to Anglo-Saxon times.
“That’s the kind of age it’s operating in,” she said, “in terms of gender relations as well as everything else.”