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In Women We Trust: How Wall Street Could Have Avoided Our Economic Meltdown

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With yesterday's ouster of Sallie Krawcheck from Citi, the prostration of Wall Street's triad of powerful women was a mission completed. The announcement, amid a week of devastating shake-ups in the financial sector, hit a particular nerve: Krawcheck had asked that clients be paid back for Citi's defective investments - an ethical response to the market's downward spiral that was appreciated less by higher-ups than it was by clients. Though the details of Krawcheck's departure are up for speculation, her story echoes the growing cultural narrative concerning our trust of women as leaders versus the support we give them - via the voting booth and board rooms - to lead us from the helm.

According to a Pew study released this August, Americans believe that women far surpass their male counterparts in the quality of their character as leaders. When it comes to honesty, intelligence, compassion, and creativity, Americans contend that women have "the right stuff." Yet the study also reveals a disjuncture between the public's trust of women as leaders, and their overall feeling of who makes a better leader. A mere six percent said women made better leaders, while one-fifth of respondents cited men as better leaders overall. As the study says, "Women emerge from this survey a bit like a sports team that racks up better statistics but still loses the game."

A report to be released this fall by The White House Project's Corporate Council resonates this finding. Across ten sectors - from business and politics to journalism and film - the report illustrates the persistent disparity between Americans' high level of trust for women as leaders, and the dismal percentage of women who have been supported in those arenas in their leadership.

Yet the characteristics that Americans attribute to women leaders are the very traits that many would say is sorely lacking - from Wall Street to Capitol Hill. With a proposed $700 billion rescue plan that would make already-suffering American taxpayers foot the bill for corporate capriciousness, it's near impossible to look at what has happened in the financial sector and not ask whether we would be having such devastation if more women were at the economic steering wheel.

Perhaps none had put it better than Sara Vines, in her humorous take for the The Times of London this week: "No sensible woman I know would have encouraged the selling of 120 percent mortgages to people who could barely afford their grocery bills. Such a think would be laughable, a bit like carrying of XXL condoms around in your pocket."

Krawcheck, and the rest of her female cohort on Wall Street, seem to be paying the price for what Vines says that women innately do - "stop for a tiny moment to consider the human cost of all this." In a country where nearly half of retirees expect to outlive their savings, where homeless shelters are brimming with families recently put out by foreclosures, and parents can't afford to send their children to college - let alone insure their health - the human cost is exactly what we need to be considering.

The difference between public trust in women as leaders versus the ample support of women to take on that leadership is faulty policy, any way you dice it. It's bad for our bottom line: as investors, business owners, customers, and as taxpayers.

In terms of the current economic meltdown, we would have been wise to take a hint from Sally Helgesen's book The Female Advantage. Though both genders are oriented toward the big picture, women "relate decisions to their larger effect upon the role of the family, the American education system, the environment, even world peace." In other words, women would have done the big-picture forecasting that might have saved Wall Street, and the rest of us, from this deepening downward spiral.

I am not an essentialist. I do not think that women, by nature, are endowed with traits that make them more compassionate, more honest, or more apt to think outside of the box. What I do know is that these traits have been largely gleaned by women through their life experiences, leading from the foot of the table. And it is exactly these foot-of-the-table characteristics that we need right now, and have for some time.

The same stale, insular, old-boys-club way of thinking is what got the rest of us into this mess. What we need now are fresh ideas and new perspectives, guided by ethical imperatives and a broader view of what prosperity, responsibility, and accountability really mean for our finances and our politics. Trusting in our nation's women - and supporting them in their leadership - is the one solution we have yet to try.