Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Lessons from Viking women

This past weekend former flight attendant and union organizer Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir (right) was elected prime minister of Iceland, the first woman Prime Minister of Iceland (pop. ~300,000) and the world’s first openly gay leader. She took over on an interim basis in February, after widespread protests toppled the government in the wake of the country’s (and the world's) financial collapse.

Her cabinet is also noteworthy due to the fact that it contains an equal number of female and male ministers, the third such in the world, and Jóhanna’s put women in charge of the country’s two ailing national banks. Not to push this point too hard, but this is better than Obama is doing right now on gender in the administration (currently 7 out of 22 “Cabinet level” appointments are women).

But it’s not just Jóhanna that’s shaking things up in the after math of the country’s financial collapse. And believe me, she is.

Other women executives are rising to fill the vacuum left from the banking collapse.

Last month, WaPo and Vanity Fair ran profiles about Icelandic banker Kristín Pétursdóttir, who quit her job in 2006 as an executive for a large European bank to start her own investment management firm (h/t ESL).

From Vanity Fair:
Today her firm is, among other things, one of the very few profitable financial businesses left in Iceland. After the stock exchange collapsed, the money flooded in. A few days before we met, for instance, she heard banging on the front door early one morning and opened it to discover a little old man. “I’m so fed up with this whole system,” he said. “I just want some women to take care of my money.”
Perhaps the most famous Icelander Björk is assisting in helping to get Iceland back on track by investing in Pétursdóttir’s investment fund, co-founded by Halla Tómasdóttir, the former managing director of the Iceland Chamber of Commerce.

Halla explains how they aim to bring "feminine sensibility" to banking:
"We have five core feminine values. First, risk awareness: we will not invest in things we don't understand. Second, profit with principles - we like a wider definition so it is not just economic profit, but a positive social and environmental impact. Third, emotional capital. When we invest, we do an emotional due diligence - or check on the company - we look at the people, at whether the corporate culture is an asset or a liability. Fourth, straight talking. We believe the language of finance should be accessible, and not part of the alienating nature of banking culture. Fifth, independence. We would like to see women increasingly financially independent, because with that comes the greatest freedom to be who you want to be, but also unbiased advice."
This may not be an international trend, but I like the direction that Iceland is taking. And I hope that other countries and other women will take some cues from our Viking sisters.

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