Bank of England women doing sterling work to keep our money safe

The Bank of England might be known as the old lady of Threadneedle Street – but she has a very masculine face.

From the Bank’s governor Sir Mervyn King and his three deputies, to the nine-strong monetary policy committee that sets interest rates and the new 11-strong financial policy committee charged with avoiding another blow up in the banking system – all the posts are held by men.

The Bank’s court of directors, whose job is to manage the bank, is just a tad more enlightened – there is a woman among the 12 grandees who meet seven times a year. Just one.

But the Bank is keen to dispel any suggestions that it is a crusty old gentleman’s club, pointing out that nearly a third of middle and senior management jobs at the Bank are now held by women – up 50% on a decade ago.

In the financial stability unit – whose job is to ensure there will never be a repeat of the 2008 financial crash – two of the six divisional heads are women. .

The Bank is aware of its image problem. A women’s network was set up in 2007 and Sarah Breeden, now one of the two bosses in financial stability, was asked to take a role co-chairing the network. The other divisional head is Victoria Saporta, who runs the 30-strong prudential policy division and is an expert in the amount of capital big banks should be forced to hold.

Breeden, 44, is now head of the Bank’s risk assessment division, charged with looking for the unknown unknowns – the ticking time bombs outside the banking industry that no one has considered might be a problem.

She is new to this job, previously held by Niki Anderson, 42, who is also one of the Bank’s most senior executives and is now a special adviser on financial stability.

All three are long-standing employees of the Bank and played key roles during the banking crisis. Greek-born Saporta, 43, returned from a year-long maternity leave just days before the first signs of the 2007 credit crunch – which sparked the run on Northern Rock – and went on to become a key figure in devising the amount of capital banks should hold. She was seconded to the Cabinet Office when the G20 was held in London in 2009.

Breeden was hand-picked by the governor to run the team that tackled the Northern Rock crisis while Anderson’s role was to work out which banks and building societies might fail next.

“It was unrelenting, for about six months,” she recalls. “It was every single weekend. If we weren’t trying to get more information about what would happen, we had to write systemic impact reports. We became BlackBerry junkies overnight.”

She was on the fateful conference call in September 2008 when Lehman Brothers was allowed to collapse rather than be rescued by Barclays.

Coming up through the ranks is Lauren Anderson, an American lawyer who joined the Bank in 2011 after working on US bank failures and is now a senior manager in the special resolution unit, whose job is to devise plans to ensure that if and when banks fail in the future they do not bring down the financial system with them.

“It is the most interesting work,” she says. “When things go terribly wrong, we’re the ones who go in and fix it and make sure people have access to their money on a Monday morning. That’s a pretty amazing job to have.”

Breeden, who has been at the Bank since 1991, admits that she asked for 24 hours to think before accepting the job when the governor personally asked her to take charge of the team involved in Northern Rock .

“I wanted to make sure that I knew what the job involved. I knew it was important and I didn’t want to mess it up,” says Breeden, who ended up working on the Northern Rock crisis for five months until it was nationalised five years ago this month.

She then took a month off with her husband and two children, now seven and 10, before coming back to develop what was to become the special liquidity scheme, a kind of emergency slush fund for banks, and later helped devise the new regulatory regime, which will see the Bank once again policing the insurance and banking businesses.

The banking crisis meant long and intense working hours, but Niki Anderson said the experience has had a long-lasting effect. “I work 50% more effectively,” she says.

When she started at the bank, King was chief economist and keen for information on inflation expectations, so she devised a model which uses government bond yield curves – an indication of a price a government pays to borrow – to measure inflation expectations. Twice she has been tempted away from the Bank, once to work for a hedge fund and then for an investment bank.

“I wasn’t sure if my career was going to go anywhere. I perceived a bit of a glass ceiling,” she says. But she returned both times, admitting that the private sector was not as rewarding.

This is also what keeps Breeden at the bank. “What we do … matters. The judgments that we make and the analysis we do really matter for everybody out there,” she says.

They could earn more in the City. Saporta is aware of this as manager of a 30-strong department: “What keeps them here is a commitment to public policy. You have to keep them motivated given there is a big opportunity cost in staying on.”

Women made up 43% of graduates recruited into permanent jobs at the Bank last year, up from 29% in 2011, and the Bank recently won an award for the public-sector employer doing the most to create a pipeline of female leaders of the future.

King’s successor – Bank of Canada boss Mark Carney – takes over from him in the summer and will serve for five years. Time enough, possibly, for the old lady to find a female face?

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