February 16, 2009 / 4:36 PM / 9 years ago

Guess who's feeling the credit crunch squeeze?

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Programs in the corporate world designed to address the gender imbalance at the top of big companies are being cut as a result of the credit crunch crisis.

And guess who’s going to come off worse?

Will it be the scores of rich, white, male top bank executives who have been pilloried in the press as the scapegoats for the global recession? Not really.

British research shows women’s jobs in general will be hit harder this time than previous recessions.

The female redundancy rate has risen by 2.3 percentage points since the start of 2008, almost double the rate of the increase for men of 1.2 percentage points, according to research by Britain’s Trades Union Congress (TUC).

This is partly because more women work now than in earlier economic downturns, and also because lots of women work in Britain’s vast service sector.

“Jobs in this recession will be lost across the economy rather than concentrated in male dominated sectors such as manufacturing, as in previous downturns,” the TUC said.

And hopes of smashing the glass ceiling for many women could also be dashed as companies axe budgets for executive coaching and diversity training which can help women grab top roles.

“There’s no doubt private sector companies have put a lot of effort into diversity, now budgets are being cut, awareness training gets cut,” said Ian Dodds, who runs a diversity consulting business.

Women have struggled to break into senior positions in the public and corporate sectors in big numbers and there is evidence in some places that that progress has now stalled.

In Britain, for example, in 2008 there were fewer women holding top posts in 12 out of 25 categories, which include members of Parliament, editors of national newspapers and judges, according to the latest Sex and Power report from Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission.

WHERE DIVERSITY HURTS

Women hold about 11 percent of FTSE 100 directorships and, last year, of the 149 new appointees to boards of Britain’s top 100 companies only 16 or about 10 percent were women, the Female FTSE Report 2008 from the Cranfield University School of Management revealed late last year.

A severe recession could slow the pace of change as companies hunker down into more traditional working practices.

“Some companies are folding back into the people and systems that have made them successful in the past - that’s where diversity tends to hurt,” said Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, chief executive of consultancy 20first and publisher of website Women-omics.com

The credit crisis has also raised questions over whether more women at the top would have produced a different outcome from a wrecked financial services sector and a global recession. High-risk lending by the world’s big banks, where chief executives are mostly men, has seized up global financial markets and pushed the global economy toward a long and deep recession.

“There is a glimmer of recognition of the different contribution that women tend to offer and its value, after what has happened in the more testosterone-driven sections of the financial sector,” said Dodds.

The Female FTSE report has recommended that consideration be given to female candidates for new board positions in Britain’s recapitalized banks.

But it is not all gloom and doom.

Wittenberg-Cox says some companies that have taken a more strategic view of diversity are using the current climate to reshuffle their gender balance.

German engineering giant Siemens in November appointed a woman to its managing board for the first time in its 160 year history, making it the only company in the German DAX 30 industrial index with a woman on its board.

Barbara Kux, 54, will head the group’s supply chain management organization and look after the company’s 42 billion euro ($53.60 billion) global procurement.

Siemens also appointed a chief of diversity last October, a new role for the company.

“Companies that have invested in this for a long time are reluctant to lose it,” Wittenberg-Cox said. “Some saw it has a ‘nice to do’, but it was not completely business driven. It (the downturn) will reveal those who believe it and those who don‘t.”

Reporting by Jane Merriman, editing by Paul Casciato

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