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Giving the finger to Harriet Harman: part 6

Having said thus far why I think Harriet Harman was wrong to effectively indicate that those in the city should not be taking clients to lapdancing bars, I will set out where we do have common ground and where perhaps the lines should be drawn.

Women obviously should not be discriminated against on the grounds of their sex. Society should seek to give people the opportunity to make the most of their talents (regardless of sex, orientation, religion, race or whatever). So far I suspect that virtually everyone would agree.

I also think that sex related issues need to be handled sensitively. I know female professionals who have accompanied colleagues to lapdancing clubs and thought the whole experience was an absolute hoot (in part because they found it hilarious to observe the various reactions of the men, from openly lecherous at one end of the scale to totally embarrassed at the other, passing through those who could not avoid being obviously interested in the women but who were also simultaneously plainly struggling with a feeling that this was not entirely right: these professional women probably regarded the experience if anything as demeaning to men rather than women because some of the men demean themselves). I know of female professionals who would vociferously object to ever attending a lapdancing club, and who would take a dim view of anyone who regularly attended such places. I know some men who would take the same view (although it is fair to say, far far fewer).

Certainly no woman should ever be made or feel obliged to visit an establishment which she would feel uncomfortable, whether a client wants it or not. However, assuming that clients want to visit such establishments, it is difficult to see why any business should be prevented from taking them, or why it would be an objection that this will help those who go to bond with the clients. There will be many different types of activity in which client bonding can occur and not everyone has to be present at all of them. Nor do I necessarily see it as being wrong for in any particular instance female employees not to be invited to the event. Whilst I think employees should be given the option, inviting female employees to visit a lapdancing club might be construed as implicitly putting pressure on them to go, and I think from the most genuine of motives it is perfectly possible that an employer might be unwilling to invite them for fear of causing offence.

Nor do I regard the comments of Harriet Harman regarding levels of attainment and pay within the City as necessarily indicative of sexism. As we have already seen, in some parts of the City biological factors and the reaction to testosterone are directly linked to profit. There are a host of other scientific studies which show differences between the sexes: not, lest unreconstructed chauvinists seek to take comfort from this, that one sex is better or more gifted than the other, but that on average (and such surveys are always on average and may be irrelevant in any particular individual instance) sometimes one sex or the other might in general have a particular advantage when it comes to a particular task. That can never be an excuse for discrimination against any individual in any field, but it does mean that it is inappropriate to have crude numbers targets making in any individual instance the potentially erroneous assumption that all other factors are equal (even before one considers the potential impact of different careers of maternity breaks for some which are bound to have at least some statistical impact).

Another recent survey in the same journal, as the 2d:4d ratio survey, namely the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was undertaken by various scientists led byDr Francisco Ayala from the University of California. This showed different areas of the brain lighting up in men as opposed to women when looking at art. This was taken as potentially indicating that each sex might have a tendency (and as with all studies these are only ever general tendencies) to be better at some forms of visual assessment than the other. This might well mean that (again taken as an average) women's visual skills would be more beneficial in some tasks or occupations, or men's in another. Would this have an impact for screen or other trading? We simply do not know. There are also other team issues which can impact upon individual effectiveness such as the recent work by a team from Emmanuel College in Boston published in the US journal Psychological Science. They found that women formed a negative view of other women much more quickly and easily than men did of other men. The survey was led by a woman, associate professor of psychology Joyce Benenson. This was thought to be consistent with previous surveys showing that some women prefer to work for a male boss. (Presumably not the team in the survey!).

None of this justifies Sexism in the City and I (and most of us) would share Harriet Harman's desire to see any such sexism eradicated. However as has been seen in various occupations there are a number of factors at work which we have not yet learned to fully evaluate the consequences of for women in the workplace. Ministerial suggestion of imposition of pay rates or quotas is no more appropriate than mandating what activities can and cannot be undertaken. Equality for women (as with any other group) is rightly an important principle, but it should never be used as a political football. Miss Harman may very well be right when she said that women are treated unfairly in the financial services sector, but I doubt before making the announcement that she has even begun to consider impartially whether the evidence demonstrates that that is so.

Michael J. Booth QC