It’s a WO-Man’s World

It’s a WO-Man’s World

You’ve come a long way baby. That was the message of Gail Collins, New York Times columnist and author of “When Everything Changed” at last weekend’s Omega Institute “Women & Power: Our Time To Lead” conference. Ms. Collins explained to the hundreds of women in attendance that back in 1960 women could not wear “slacks” in public. She reminds us that it was a man’s world in the most primitive sense a mere 50 years ago.

Yet the unmistakable message of the power packed Omega conference was that women in business and economy still have a long way to go. We earn 70% of what our male counterparts earn and head 24 of the Fortune 1000 companies. According to the Wall Street Journal we are fading fast from the financial industry as women “bore the brunt of the layoffs in the recent recession.” Jacki Zehner, one of the few women to climb to Goldman Sachs partnership level, reveals that only 4 women out of 30 executives sit on the management committee. She claims that GS is the gold standard for opportunities for women in finance despite a recent discrimination suit.

The indefatigable Pat Mitchell, CEO of the Paley Center for Media and former CEO of PBS, explained to the Omega crowd that she resigned from the Board of Directors at Bank of America when it became clear during the financial crisis that the bank adhered to old boy money and power practices. The inference is that women would never have created the financial crisis. She concluded after sitting in male-dominated board rooms and not being able to affect change, that women were “better suited by our talents and skills” to create a more “prosperous, peaceful and sustainable world.” Her take on the new shift in business? Create your own media company and change the news! Change the message by reporting what we as women think is important. Not a bad idea actually, especially for a gal like me who is already doing that.

A few months back, Sheelah Kolhatkar asked in New York Magazine, “What if Women Ran Wall Street?”   Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner responded with, “How, you might ask, could women not have done better?” 

Ms. Kolhatkar examines the relationship between “Testosterone and Risk.” A hedge fund manager tells her that, “Men are much more willing to take a shot on something with incomplete knowledge.” He claims that the presence of women “prevents extreme behavior—or irrational exuberance.”

Two years after the American investment banking system died and did not go to heaven, if the presence of women in the industry prevents high levels of irrational risk, then we are in big trouble. Top decisions are made by only 12% women. This is the same scenario that brought us here. Someone at the Omega conference said it was “not the numbers” that determines the change needed in business. As a former member of the Wall Street community myself, I say yes it is.

There is a still a feeling of being part of a private fraternity – if you get through the hazing you can join the club. It is the hazing, the primitive camaraderie and competition among men, that creates all the problems. And that is the best side of it. The other side of the financial industry is the overwhelming sense of a trading floor, for example, being somehow comparable to a football locker room. Not fun or intriguing to most females.

The real choice we face in this testosterone fueled environment is whether we want to be there at all. If you look at the numbers, 29% of vice presidents in financial firms are women and it only shrinks from there. Just in case you are impressed with the VP title, think again. Vice presidents on Wall Street are one step up from associates. This is a junior level executive position and not the person creating firm policy. They take orders from senior vp’s, managing directors, senior md’s, partners and the operating committee. Getting the picture? This less than one third of woman power has minimal impact on transforming the business model. And clearly the business model on Wall Street needs to be transformed.

So what can estrogen-charged powerhouses do to right the wrongs of their testosterone-driven counterparts?

We can create new institutions, new banks, new media outlets, new political parties, new companies—new models for a more equitable future. There is no room at the Inn for us ladies. We can see that in the “numbers.” So let’s just bypass the numbers and create new measurements of economic standards. Forget about how many women are shoving their way into old school CEO seats. The real question is how many women entrepreneurs and leaders are driving the change for something wholly new?

Gail Collins told the Omega audience that thousands of years of oppression for women were undone in five short years between 1968 and 1973. If we really want to change our world and right the wrongs that hold us back, it is up to us to do it. The statistics reveal that is can be done when we put our minds to it. We have piles of burdens on our plates already—the constant challenge of childcare being one of them. Yet we can imagine collective solutions to raising children and give women a chance to get back in the game. Shared responsibility for one, government supported childcare for another. It’s time to usher in new economic models. There is no better place to begin than with ourselves.

What if women did run Wall Street? I like to believe that as the givers of life we would not be willing or content to destroy the lives of others, economically or otherwise. Perhaps most importantly, we would understand that undermining the financial system that supports us by excessive risk is a self-defeating model. The future is begging us to take the reins. Our children need us co-creating their world as much as they need us at home. We can no longer leave this big job in irresponsible hands.

So what do you say we pick up where our sisters left off in 1973? We can generate a helluva lot of good over the next five years. Here’s to the sustainable and just world we envision by 2015.

We can do it. Yes we can.

Monika Mitchell

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