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Wall Street Meltdown: What if...?

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By Linda Basch, Ph.D., President, National Council for Research on Women

If women ran Wall Street, would there have been a financial meltdown?
Maybe not. According to a recent study by Harvard researchers in the
journal of Evolution and Human Behavior, higher levels of testosterone
are related to a higher propensity to take financial risks.

I can't help but ask what if-? What if there had been more women and
more diversity in the boardrooms, on the trading floors and at top-level
decision-making tables before Wall Street melted?

As one of many of us fretting over our retirements and our checkbooks,
I'm concerned with the absence of women and the lack of diversity more
generally too. And as the head of national women's organization, I want
to make the case for bringing in the perspectives of those who have, for
decades, been on the outside - and not just because of we have new
scientific cause to worry.

The problem is, established powerbrokers tend to wear blinders. Right
now, we need to be able to take off those blinders and think of, as
former CFO of JPMorgan Chase Dina Dublon said, "the public good."

The public good requires that companies not only bring in the best and
the brightest, but that within these pools, they bring multiple
perspectives to bear. Why doesn't Wall Street's leadership understand
that yet? A Pew study released just last month showed that the public
increasingly trusts women in positions of leadership and authority,
particularly managing the checkbook. Research also shows that women in
top-level financial positions tend to be more risk-adverse and give more
studied attention to varied details before making critical decisions.
Women run our households, and we even have a woman Speaker of the House.
As a nation, we seem willing to accept the candidacies of women for the
highest leadership positions in the land. Did Wall Street miss the
memo?

I know that women's abilities as leaders vary just as men's do. But as
just one indication of the kinds of questions and perspectives women
might bring to top decisions on Wall Street, I share thoughts sent to me
last week by Merrill Lynch's Managing Director and Head of Global
Diversity and Inclusion, Subha Barry. Subha raises the question currently on all of our minds: "How do we find ourselves here?"

In her email, Subha reminds us of an issue that hasn't been discussed
nearly enough. She writes of the cycle of accountability, and how it
wasn't just a matter of homeowners purchasing houses they couldn't
afford. Banks were willing to lend 100% of the financing without a
credit check. Subha reminds us that it wasn't just that banks and
financial institutions loaned money indiscriminately, minimizing risk to
themselves by bundling and packaging mortgages into complex instruments
unrecognizable and untraceable to their origins. They sold these
complex investments to everyone they could.

Subha's email concludes: "Amazingly, while all this happened, the
largest economy in the world wrapped itself with a veneer of prosperity
and lulled itself into a false sense of comfort and security. If it
seemed too good to be true, it was."

If any one of these constituencies had stood back and questioned, or as
Subha says, held themselves accountable for their actions, we might not
have landed where we are today.

We need more Subhas bringing their questions to the power-brokers. Think
back. Who was at the table during the dot com boom when that boom went
bust? And who was at the head of the tables during the savings and loan
crisis? Those deeply implicated in systems that have gone awry have a
mandate not merely to hold themselves accountable but to bring in fresh
perspectives and new ways of doing business. Women, who historically
occupy a unique insider/outsider status in our society that often gives
rise to a fresh perspective, might just be the right partners to help us
move forward.

Wall Street, wake up. You just can't afford women's absence, nor the
absence of true diversity, any longer.