The Bank of England discovered about 120 years ago that women were ideal for some of its most tedious work: processing old banknotes. Now, the bank counts on its female staff to set rules for one of the world’s top financial centers -- before they leave early to pick up the kids.
Faced with a shortage of reliable workers, the central bank hired women to do the job in 1894, said Paul Tempest, chairman of the BOE’s alumni association. They were “cheaper and more reliable than the rough old bunch of clerks they’d had to deal with,” he said. The women had to have a chaperone if they left the office and couldn’t mix with men, even at lunch.
Today, the 319-year-old bank is working to overcome lawmaker criticism that it has a woman problem. While all nine members of its monetary policy committee are men, the BOE now has the biggest concentration of female managers ever, thanks to the creation this year of its bank-oversight division.
“If you are interested in policy and public affairs I firmly believe there is nowhere better in the U.K. to be doing it right now than in my division,” said Katharine Braddick, director of prudential policy at the bank’s Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA) in London. “There’s a seismic shift in the banking industry and we are right in the thick of that.”
Braddick also is an example of how the BOE is deploying flexible working policies and a gender diversity push to prevent defections to the private sector. She works four days a week and spends the fifth at home with her children, twins age 3 and one age 5.
Central banks in other major economies are giving women leadership positions. Janet Yellen is set to become chair of the Federal Reserve, replacing Ben S. Bernanke when his term ends Jan. 31. Karnit Flug was nominated Oct. 20 to replace Stanley Fischer at the Bank of Israel, while Elvira Nabiullina was named in March to lead Bank Rossii in Moscow. All three are the first women in their respective posts.
Bank diversity data, which don’t include the additional PRA staff, show the share of women at the BOE has held at 43 percent since 2002. Women are in the majority at junior career grades, though at senior levels they account for just 31 percent as of March 2013, the latest data available. The bank has a goal of 35 percent women in management by next year.
The Treasury, which appoints or recommends candidates for many top BOE policy roles, sees few suitable women for such jobs. It cited the “small pool of potential applicants” when it denied a Bloomberg News request for the number of women applying this year to become deputy governor for financial stability. It said that disclosing the information could reveal their identity.
Gender equality “remains not a live issue within the PRA,” said Megan Butler, director of international banks and one of the 1,185 people joining the BOE as it took the functions of the old regulator, the Financial Services Authority, on April 1. “It’s a pretty balanced set of men and women.”
U.K. lawmaker Andrea Leadsom challenged Carney last month on his progress. As a member of the Treasury Committee that oversees the bank, she asked if he’d like her to provide “a list of 100 brilliant senior experienced and capable women to consider to take on some of these senior posts?”
He said that he’d “welcome any recommendations,” and that “I fully expect that such issues will be central to our priorities in the coming years.” When he left the Bank of Canada to join the BOE in July, half of advisers to the governor and department chiefs were women, compared with 35 percent when he became governor in 2008.
At the ECB, 17 percent of all managers and 14 percent of senior managers are female, and only two have ever sat on its six-member executive board. Women held 40 percent of the Fed board’s senior level executive positions in 2012, and about 45 percent of all employees were female.
Jo Paisley, 45, started at the BOE as an economist in 1991, a time when the bank was “pretty male dominated.” As director of risk specialists at the PRA, she’ll help run stress tests to show how vulnerable the eight biggest U.K. lenders are to economic shocks. She leaves at 5 p.m. to have dinner with her children, 8 and 10, and works in the evening when necessary.
Directors such as Paisley, Butler and Braddick could more than double their annual pay, to 340,000 pounds ($555,000), as a European head of compliance at a bank, according to a survey by financial recruitment firm Michael Page.
The central bank does pay women more than it used to -- a lot more. The first female clerks back in 1894 made as little as 1 pound a week and there was slim prospect of a raise. Janet Courtney, the first supervisor of female clerks at the BOE, described a lifetime of drudgery in her 1926 autobiography, “Recollected in Tranquility.”
In her Canceled Notes department, the staff would sort returned bills in numerical order, count them into stacks of 60 and enter their numbers in a ledger. “We were given six months to learn the work; naturally we had mastered it in under six weeks,” Courtney wrote. Their work was “a soul-destroying avocation, from which any woman, let alone a woman of higher education, might well pray to be delivered.”
Two world wars and government legislation on sex discrimination and equal pay aided women’s prospects. Staff shortages during World War II forced the bank to drop the requirement to quit when they got married.
The bank was a long way from equality, though, and even at the start of the 2000s women who worked part-time could see their career progress stalled, said Louise Redmond, BOE human resources director from 2004 to 2010.
“You could do a job, but you couldn’t get promoted,” said Redmond, a non-executive director at Cranfield University and the Government Actuary’s Department. The bank was “extremely hierarchical and formal, very different to a typical corporate environment at the time and a long way behind in its culture.”
Jo Place, executive director for human resources, recalled that when she started in 1986, “You had to refer to your manager as Mister Somebody. It immediately created a barrier.” Now, even Carney has staff call him by his first name, dropping a convention followed by predecessor Mervyn King of being addressed as Mr. Governor.
Place, who was operations director at the PRA before being promoted last month, leaves as early as 3:30 to pick her children up at school, then works from home in the evenings.
The PRA’s Butler, 49, says when she moved to the central bank from the FSA she was struck by the “vast amount” of different working patterns. Butler is responsible for supervising the London operations of foreign investment banks.
Butler trained as a lawyer and joined the London Stock Exchange in 1989, when there were few women. She had her first child at that time. She was hired to join the FSA when she was five months pregnant with her second child, a decision that “was admirable and quite unusual at that point.”
The high proportion of woman managers at the FSA stems in part from the fact that it was a relatively new agency, set up in 1997 by the first Labour government in almost 20 years. A record 101 women won seats in Parliament that year in Tony Blair’s landslide victory.
Braddick, who also came to the bank from the FSA, found out she was pregnant the week she got promoted to senior management in strategy and risk. When she returned from maternity leave she worked a four-day week.
At the PRA, Andrew Bailey, deputy governor for prudential policy, suggested she keep her four-day working arrangement. On the days she’s at the bank she stays from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Once the childcare is finished in the evening, she works some more at home.
The bank’s willingness to allow her to work flexibly is a message she emphasized in a speech to the bank’s Women’s Network when she joined.
“I said to them that the organization has willingly accommodated me and has never put an obstacle in my path,” Braddick said. “Do not make assumptions about what can and can’t be done because so many people self-select out.”