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A woman who breaks the rules still stands out in a way that few men can



Last week was full of news about two women in trouble because of their boyfriends.

Gladys Berejiklian, the politician who has run the Australian state of New South Wales for most of the past five years, abruptly resigned after an anti-corruption agency said it was investigating her.

Investigators want to know if Berejiklian did anything untoward in relation to a chunk of taxpayer money awarded to a clay target shooting group and a music school in a seat whose local MP at the time was her boyfriend.

Meanwhile, in Paris, a scandal of a loftier order engulfed the writer Camille Laurens, a juror for this year’s prestigious Goncourt literary prize.

As the New York Times reported, she voted for a book by her lover to be longlisted for the prestigious prize and then, nine days later, pilloried a rival book on the list in a column for Le Monde.

The Goncourt announced a rule change last week. Books by jurors’ lovers or family members will no longer be considered. Also, jurors who review books must not sound off about anything being considered for the prize. The book Laurens’s lover wrote is, alas for him, no longer on the list.

But it was something she told the NYT that made me wonder about the situation in which both women have found themselves.

Laurens claimed she had been singled out for what she wrote in Le Monde because she was a woman. Instead of focusing on her arguments, she said, “people prefer saying that I’m ‘brutal’ and ‘vicious’ ”.

Frankly, this sounds like nonsense. Conflicts of interest can be tricky to navigate but in this case, the conflict was obvious.

Rogue boyfriend

Berejiklian, a member of the centre-right Liberal party, refrained from blaming her gender for her predicament, but others came close to doing it for her.

Headlines suggested a hardworking “superwoman” had been led astray by a rogue boyfriend and brought down by crusading investigators.

We shall see. Without knowing what the corruption inquiry will find, it is clear her taste in boyfriends has been questionable. Her ex-lover resigned three years ago himself after another corruption inquiry heard he had been trying to broker property deals for developers.

As Berejiklian once said of the relationship herself, “I stuffed up.”

So are there grounds to think gender plays a role in how we view conflicts of interest? I think there are, but they are not always obvious.

Consider an investigation the Wall Street Journal published the other week showing 131 federal judges in the US had broken the law by overseeing cases involving businesses in which they or their families owned shares.

Scrolling through the story, I kept noticing how many female judges were mentioned. There seemed to be a lot of them. In fact, only about a quarter of the 131 judges were women, which means they were under-represented in a country where just a third of the federal US judiciary is female.

They stood out for the reasons women in positions of power stand out any time they breach conflict-of-interest rules, or any rules at all: they are still seriously outnumbered, and not just in the courtroom.

Slow progress

At the start of this year, UN figures showed women accounted for 25 per cent of global parliaments, 22 per cent of ministerial jobs and just 6 per cent of elected heads of state.

Progress has not just been slow, it has at times gone backwards.

The number of countries without a single female minister rose from nine last year to 12 in 2021, while the number where women held at least half of ministerial positions fell from 14 to 13.

If anything it is worse in boardrooms. The percentage of female chief executives has risen from a paltry 3.8 per cent in 2011 to just 4.8 per cent in 2021, a study of 3,000 companies in 55 countries by the Corporate Women Directors International group showed last month.

Even in the countries with the highest percentage of female chief executives – the US, Singapore, Australia and Thailand – the share was less than 9 per cent.

No wonder we notice whenever one of them steps out of line. This will eventually change. But at current rates of progress, very few people alive today will be around to see it happen. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021



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