Page last updated at 09:39 GMT, Monday, 18 May 2009 10:39 UK

The women who want to save banking

Can women bankers and investment managers get us out of the economic mess that their male colleagues got us into? Will it take women to ensure the future health of the financial sector?

Halla Tomasdottir and Kristin Petursdottir are convinced the answer is yes.

Halla Tomasdottir and Kristin Petursdottir
Halla (L) and Kristin (R) want to use their feminine values in their business

They set up their investment firm Audur Capital in Iceland to prove it. So should the boardrooms be filled with women now?

"But not women alone," says Halla, the Audur chairman. "A world of only women would be just as imbalanced. We need a balance between men and women to make healthier decisions."

Halla and Kristin set up Audur Capital in 2007, with Kristin as CEO. As they explained to Peter Day for this week's Global Business on the BBC World Service, for them, running a successful company "is all about using our own values". The reason the male-female balance matters, is that women, they argue, bring different values to the table.

Female values

They founded Audur in 2007, and by the time they got their operating licence in May 2008, the economic crash was looming. "Yes, but we were very careful, and very risk-aware," they say. "Risk-aware, not risk-averse. Women are risk-aware, men are risk takers."

And now Halla Tomasdottir, the chairman, thinks that "six months after the crash, we're one of perhaps two [investment] companies in Iceland still alive, not accepting government assistance, and we won't need it. So we managed to do very well with the values we brought."

Women are willing to ask stupid questions. We won't take risks we don't understand, so we ask: what is sub-prime?
Halla Tomasdottir

Being "risk-aware" is one of those values, and one reason why they are convinced that getting the male-female balance right is so important.

"Women tend to bring a lot to the table. They think more long-term, they think about the team, and not only themselves. They think more about people, and they see other business opportunities than men."

There is another, crucial difference, they find: "Women are willing to ask stupid questions. We want to understand. We won't take risks we don't understand, so we ask: what is sub-prime? Who'll pay these loans back?"

The power of three

But if there are just one or two women on a company board, as there often are nowadays, they will not ask those "stupid" questions.

"That is why tokenism is no help. You need true diversity. When someone is a token presence, they have two choices: marginalising themselves, or belonging. Most women choose to belong, to be accepted. To really be themselves is much more difficult."

Icelandic demonstrators
Icelanders demanded the resignation of their government after their banks collapsed

So how do you get round this?

"Three is a critical number. If there are three women, things work out much better."

Do we need quotas, like the 40% in Norway?

"I used to be against it, but am now leaning towards it. It would do the world a whole lot of good to have a better balance."

But it is not as easy as that, as she admits: "The problem you sometimes get, like with affirmative action in the US, is people get around it. The board may have the right balance, but the actual board meeting is in the steam room or on a golf course. And that is not a good thing. "

Emotional due diligence

Being risk-aware, asking the right questions, why else do they think it matters to have a gender balance at the top?

"You do need people that put ethics and corporate governance high on the agenda. I have learnt through years in personnel management that women tend to put these values higher on the agenda. They're also interested in a wider definition of what's a good return. "

Moreover, they say, as women "we are willing to use our rational mind and our emotional intelligence to release value out of our investments. The touchy-feely side is actually the harder side. We reject a lot more investment opportunities as a result of emotional due diligence than financial due diligence."

Icelandic bank notes
The value of the Icelandic currency, the krona, has plummeted

They argue that there is another, perhaps more pragmatic reason, too, why having more women on the board can matter. "80% of household purchasing decisions are made by women. Both their financial, and their human capital, like education, are growing fast. It is very important to have women round the decision-making table to really understand this growing female market."

Kristin and Halla are convinced that their results prove them right. "Our values got us through the crisis. We tripled out wealth management business when everyone else was losing business. We achieved this through trust, and the things we stand for. And straight talking. We told our clients things that they would not have been told elsewhere. We believe in being authentic to our clients, that's in our DNA. "

The glass cliff

Audur is an Icelandic woman's name, and it means wealth, happiness and clear space. Audur Capital is already turning a "healthy" profit. And, unlike many others in the sector, they say they work nine or ten hours a day, no more. They want their staff, and society, to have a better work-life balance, with time for family as well as the office. Anything else would just lead to burn-out and not be sustainable.

But there is a risk they are concerned about. Not the glass ceiling that stops women rising above a certain level, but the glass cliff. Halla is very worried that a woman's success can be "a cliff that will break off so easily, and then she won't be able to rise again. But look at men, they're belly down, and most will soon rise up again."

There is one thing both Halla and Kristin do have in common with more men than women though: a love of fly-fishing!

You can hear Peter Day's interview with Halla and Kristin in full on Global Business from Tuesday the 19th of May. Click here to listen or to subscribe to the podcast.

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