If Women Had More Say Would Wall Street Be in Better Shape?

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One of the "what if" scenarios that emanated from the financial crisis was, what would have happened if there were more women running trading and other risk-sensitive operations on Wall Street?

"There was a lot of discussion suggesting the downturn would have been softer with more women at the table given that women may be more risk-averse," Christine Silva, a Toronto-headquartered research director at Catalyst told eFinancialCareers. Catalyst is a New York-based non-profit group focused on expanding business opportunities for women.

Even New York magazine ran an article assessing the testosterone/risk relationship-what if Lehman Brothers had been "Lehman Sisters?" Some concluded that "Lehman would probably still be in business, although it also would have earned less money during the boom years," writer Sheelah Kolhatkar mused.

She went on to quote a hedge fund manager's observation that when he worked on AMEX's trading floor, few women exchange traders were visible anywhere, but the really good ones were "unbelievable," failing to lose their cool under most circumstances and taking fewer chances on the basis of sketchy or incomplete data.

Why is it then, that during the financial downturn, female senior executives were three times more likely to lose their jobs as compared to males at the same level, according to a survey of 873 MBA alumni who graduated between 1996 and 2007 from leading business schools in Asia, Canada, Europe, and the U.S.?

Also, why is it that the biggest wage gap in the country exists in the financial services sector, where women earned 70.5 cents for every dollar men made in 2009 , according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report released this past February?

But the major question is why is it that today there are still only around 17 women among the 200 most senior bankers on executive committees, or at similar levels?

The reasons are many, including "gender-based stereotypes, lack of informal networks and a lack of senior female role models," Silva says. But as for the layoffs during the downturn, Catalyst heard anecdotally that "women had fewer people in their corner," able to root for women as to "who would stay and who would go."

Deutsche Bank and Citi offer a bit of help:

A new Catalyst report focuses on the clear importance of having a sponsor in one's corner as a female executive facing all of the above.

Included are comments from both Deutsche Bank and Citibank, regarding sponsorship programs at the banks that have born fruit. Participants in DB's Accomplished Top Leaders Advancement Strategy (ATLAS) program "include women who are already leaders at the firm but who, with the help of strategic sponsorship, have the potential to rise to even more senior, more visible positions."

"In thinking about next steps for the firm and developing a program for women to succeed globally, Deutsche Bank realized that companies employing more women in leadership positions are better able to attract and retain women employees and serve a diverse customer base," DB explains in the report. Today, "Across the entire ATLAS cohort group, 45 percent of women participating are now in new or expanded roles," Deutsche Bank says.

One caveat when looking for a sponsor, formally or otherwise, Silva says: it isn't the same as a mentor. A mentor is someone who gives you career advice, while a sponsor will actively advocate for you with company decisionmakers.