Debate reopens over 'feminine' traits

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Elizabeth Wade has just become the latest woman to be made investor relations director at DaimlerChrysler.

Wade's appointment was preceded by Rebecca Burrows, who joined Prudential in the summer as director of IR, and Gillian Karran, the former investor relations head at UBS Warburg, who was appointed head of the same department at Volkswagen in May.

Some IR executives and equities analysts believe that so-called 'feminine' qualities mean women are more skilled in assuaging the concerns of analysts and the financial media.

Ben Strickland, a director at headhunters AT Kearney, says four out of five leading candidates for IR positions are female. Within a 'second tier' of smaller firms, he adds, there is also a large and growing raft of female personnel.

It seems investor relations is one area of finance where women have made significant inroads. However, as in most careers, women are bumping up against a glass ceiling. At the senior end, there is a 70:30 split in favour of men in the heavyweight IR roles. In the light of this, the appointments of Wade, Burrows and Karran appear noteworthy.

Further down the career ladder, the balance is more even. The Investor Relations Society has 298 male members compared to 241 women. Bill Stokoe, a senior partner at IR consultancy Shared Value, and a director of the society, says: 'Our IR training courses are made up of 60-70% women. The female side of our membership is increasing. On all of our training courses, the number of women exceeds the amount of men.'

Aidre Taylor, a director of headhunters Taylor Bennet, says there will be more questions about how to communicate with small shareholders, with the internet increasing the potential for retail share dealing.

She adds that media familiarity and communication skills will become increasingly important. 'There is a new style of investor relations developing. It seems to me that teams are being formed comprising ex-analysts coming together with people who are PR-savvy.'

This evolving style is seen to suit women because of the familiar litany of 'feminine' traits, such as co-operation, communication and intuitiveness.

Prudential's Burrows, however, questions claims that the reason for her success is a result of her sex. 'I've done IR for 12 years and it is very difficult to say that I'm good because I'm a woman. I'd like to think that I'm good at what I do because of my own merits, regardless of my sex.'

She admits, however, that she is, to her knowledge, the only senior female IR person in the life assurance sector. She describes herself as the company's 'primary point of contact for the City of London'.

Anita Frew, a director at PR agency Abbot Mead Vickers and a former investment manager at Scottish Provident, also rejects the argument for a gender bias. The male-female issue is not the most pressing one in IR, she says.

'To my mind, the major issue concerns the distinctions between those people who go into the profession to use it as a stepping stone en route to the job of finance director and those from a PR background who do it because they enjoy the communications side. To me, this transcends any debate about male-female differences in the role.'

Karen Donhue, external communications manager at Royal and Sun Alliance, takes a middle line, observing that both 'masculine' and 'feminine' qualities are judged useful.

She says: 'Men tend to be more into external power networking than women. Women like to have a broad range of contacts - which is more of a social thing than a power thing, and this can be of value.'

One London-based life assurance analyst adds: 'Looking at the financial services industry in general, I think that financial services companies need to be less macho. It's not, however, just women who can do this. Men can easily have female-type skills.'