The Feminine Mystique
Women leaders gather to discuss the “what ifs” of a society in which women wielded more political and economic power
Perhaps it’s not surprising that most leaders at the center of the financial crisis – in financial institutions, legislatures, and executive offices – are men.
If there had been more women in positions of leadership three to five years before the crisis hit, we could have avoided the depth and breadth of the crash, said Susan Segal, president and CEO of the Americas Society and the Council of the Americas.
Segal joined The Washington Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth, former Congresswoman Connie Morella, and Asia Society President Vishakha Desai to give the women’s perspective on the current economic climate and discuss whether a lack of women leaders was a missed opportunity to prevent it.
The wide-ranging conversation, moderated by Becky Quick, co-anchor of CNBC’s “Squawk Box”, culminated the second annual Bertelsmann Foundation conference on the financial crisis.
“Had Lehman Brothers been Lehman Sisters, it would have made a significant difference,” Morella quipped. She described hearing a great description of Devil’s Casino, a book about the Lehman downfall, as “an industry taken down by jerks”.
Several of the panelists noted studies that show companies with female chief executives report higher profitability. Nevertheless, few women executives exist.
Weymouth pointed out a trend that might hinder their progress up the corporate ladders. “How do women get into really strong management positions if some of them who have the means are stepping out,” she asked.
Her comment led to a collective lament about the poor US child-care policies.
“Our child care policies are pretty pathetic,” Desai said. In India, she added, where there are more women in positions of leadership, “health is easy, family is there, there is an entire network and support system.” It’s difficult to see those two conditions as mutually exclusive, she noted.
Companies that promote flexible time schedules, working from home, and other family-friendly policies are consistently finding profits to be up, Morella added.
Yet there remains “a huge amount of resistance to diversity,” Segal said. There is parity at the business and law schools, she said, “but as you go up that ladder, you lose the parity.”
Quick intervened, saying that her own experience showed that “once you’re in, if you stay and succeed, [the trajectories of men and women] end up being very similar.”
Segal didn’t back down: “Only people who mold themselves to the culture can stay.” As US demographics continue to diversify, she said, companies will benefit from leaders who reflect that diversity.
Congress should take the hint too, Morella said. There’s so much polarization in politics these days because people “are not listening to different voices and trying to find a solution. They don’t know each other, and I think that leads to a lack of civility.
“When you don’t know each other, it’s not as easy to say, ‘Yes, let’s talk about this issue.’”
In the coming years, some countries won’t have the luxury of simply choosing diversity, Desai added. In Asia, she said, “they’re not going to have enough people working if they don’t focus on women.”
Returning to the day’s core issue, some panelists said it’s unclear if more women leaders would have truly headed off the economic crisis. “We don’t have enough women [at those levels] to actually make a case that it might have been different,” Desai said. “We don’t have enough evidence.”
Each panelist tried to avoid over-generalizations, but some agreed that the nature of women – to build consensus, look at both sides of an issue, and seek solutions – might not have created the crisis-prone environment of ego-driven risk-taking.
Quick asked all panelists to offer their best advice to women who want to reach the highest levels of power and leadership.
Morella noted that women “don’t take the chances they should take.” She quoted a female Navy admiral, who said: “A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are for. Sail on!” Along those lines, Desai said women need to step out of their comfort zone. Segal went a step further: “Step up, speak out, and push the edge of the envelope much more.”
But the greatest applause greeted Weymouth’s observation that taking risks is worth it, even if you fail. The Washington Post publisher referred to a highly publicized incident in 2009 when she proposed a series of “salons” at her home, for which corporations would pay for access to mingle with reporters. But the implication of that arrangement quickly descended into payment for favorable coverage.
“I took a big risk, and I fell flat on my face last summer,” she admitted. But she took the heat for it and learned from the experience. “We need to try things,” Weymouth insisted.
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