Opinion: The gender game belittles everyone

It is a long time since a company achieved the range and depth of coverage that mining giant Anglo American bagged last weekend following the appointment of its new chief executive, who had been headhunted from aluminium business Alcan.

Anglo is not even British, although it has its share listing in London: its origins are in South African gold mines, and the ores it mines (apart from a few aggregates sites) are entirely overseas.

So it was all very odd. The reason for the interest had little to do with Anglo - or the problems the mining sector faces in an age of growing concern for the environment - and everything to do with the fact that the new boss is a woman, Cynthia Carroll.

It was that which was driving the coverage and it is that which I find deeply depressing. We ought surely to have got to the point where a CEO appointment is an appointment and the gender of the candidate is scarcely worthy of comment.

Even if that is a bit naïve, it was surely a mistake for Anglo to milk it. No doubt it got excited by the media interest, but by making her so available they are only underlining the latent sexism in the media reaction. In Anglo's defence, however, it is probably dammed if it does, and dammed if it doesn't. There would no doubt have been outcry if it had tried to keep Carroll under wraps. Even so, one wonders whether all this coverage might not return to haunt the company - and Carroll - in the months and years to come.

There are uncomfortable reminders of the hype a few years ago when Dame Marjorie Scardino landed the top slot at Pearson. She was the first female chief of a FTSE 100 company and it triggered a feeding frenzy. I sometimes wonder if her relationship with the City and the media has ever been quite normal since.

That surely is the problem. On a practical level, playing the gender card to get publicity gets the candidate off on the wrong foot, with too much focus on style and not enough on the substance of the job in hand. And once embarked on that route, it is doubly hard to switch discussion to what ought really to matter in business journalism, which could make it tough for Carroll. It really is time we all grew up.
anthony.hilton@haynet.com

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