In Conversation with Dame Frances Cairncross on Education, Economics and the Gender Gap

Author: Alexandra Altinger

I was delighted to have the opportunity to meet with prestigious economist, Dame Frances Cairncross, ahead of her fascinating More to Wealth lecture for Sandaire. With an inspiring career as a journalist and editor at many notable publications including The Times, The Observer and The Economist, she has also written a number of insightful books covering important issues such as the environment and the changing role of technology.

Recently made a Dame for her services to education and economics, she was perfectly placed to lead a discussion on the connection between education and wealth at London’s RSA. Here, I am pleased to share with you, our discussion in advance of her presentation, which touched upon her distinguished career, feminism, and how she thinks the communications revolution is changing our lives.

You’ve had an illustrious career – what inspired you to become a journalist and economist? Was there one moment in particular that made you realise you wanted to follow in your father’s footsteps as an economist?

“No one moment, but I am the oldest of five children – I have three brothers below me and I always think that sisters with younger brothers tend to do rather well. I also think that girls who have encouraging fathers do well – and my father, who had four sisters all older than him, was a great feminist – I was very lucky for that.”

Your fascinating book The Death of Distance explores how the communications revolution is changing our lives, both economically and socially. When it comes to social media, what challenges and opportunities do you think this brings – especially to businesses?

“First of all, it makes it possible for all kinds of clever young people to come up with ideas for new businesses – huge numbers of them fail, but some of them succeed. Another thing is businesses can work side by side with another business in a different part of the world, and the problem is not distance; the problem is time zones. Time zones become a bigger barrier to communication than miles.”

“A third thing is the amount of information you can discover about another business, person or product before you make an investment. Whether it’s googling the person that has just asked you out for the evening to see if you really want to go out with them, or whether it’s looking up a company that’s just offered you a job. So in all kinds of ways you have access to information; hugely faster and in much greater quantities than you ever had before.”

Almost 20 years ago, you predicted: “Ten years from now, it seems probable that wireless will have become the main conduit for voice conversations, as people come to think of the telephone as a personal, portable gadget rather than a static object which they share with others in a fixed place.” Did you ever imagine the rate of change to be quite so fast or total?

“No, and I think the thing I was most skeptical about was the idea that you’d be able to bring together the telephone and the internet – it always seemed to me that that would be tricky to do. I recently read an article in the Financial Times about how Nigeria is becoming a smartphone first country and how at least one production company in Nollywood as it’s called – the Nigerian film industry – is now talking about doing smartphone first productions, i.e. you take it from the smartphone to the big screen. I think it’s only a matter of time before that happens here; just doing movies aimed at smartphones.”

Thinking about women in the industry – have you ever felt you’ve been held back in any way for being a woman? Have you been treated any differently to male colleagues?

“I think I got the timing right. I was very lucky to come in when I did. I left university in 1966 and that was just about the time when people were waking up to feminism; they were eager to promote women and were thinking it was a good thing to have a woman on the job. Quite a lot of the jobs I’ve had, including many interesting ones, I’ve had because people wanted to put a woman in the slot – not all of them by any means, but I think the occasions when I have felt that people were putting me down because I was female have been very, very few.”

Why does the gender gap get larger at each stage of the economics profession?

“Fewer women have done well in maths – I was amazed when I was head of the college [Exeter College, University of Oxford] at how high the proportion of students, who were doing humanities were women, and the reverse was true for sciences and mathematics. Now that will change a bit, and the gap between women and men at universities has been steadily widening, with fewer men and more women, so that may change what happens in economics in future.”

“In a sense, the most powerful economist in the world at the moment, who happens to be head of the Federal Reserve, is a woman – and I think doing an extremely good job. But in general, women don’t seem to flourish – or haven’t up until now – flourished as much as men have. But I certainly don’t think it’s a question of prejudice.”

What advice would you give to young people looking to get into economics?

“I’d say it’s a fantastic subject; it teaches you a whole different way of thinking about things. Ideas, like opportunity cost and comparative advantage, and how you should regard a sunk cost, are all ideas which you can profitably apply to your own daily life. Economists think about the world a bit differently from everyone else; rather more rationally – and I think on the whole (as a wild generalisation!) more sensibly than other people.”

We would like to thank Dame Frances Cairncross for participating in the More to Wealth lecture series. Sandaire presents the More to Wealth lectures at regular intervals. The events aim to address the issues associated with successful wealth transfer as well as the broader role of wealth in society. At Sandaire, we believe investment performance is only one of the determinants of a family’s success. A family’s legacy will be driven by a multitude of influences some of which are ultimately more important than the urgent business of investment. Our experience and expertise allow us to engage with a full range of those influences.

If you would like to receive more information about the More to Wealth lectures, please contact us here.

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