Women can save the economy

June 27, 2012

Sallie Krawcheck is a former president of Bank of America Wealth Management and former chief executive of Smith Barney.

The Atlantic cover story “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” has reignited the debate about why women’s progress to the top levels of the U.S. workplace has stalled. The questions of whether focusing on this topic is simply a luxury, and how much it really matters in a country working through the continuing effects of the Great Recession, were inevitable.

But the answers, for financial services, may matter a great deal.

While opinions on diversity are wide-ranging, the facts are pretty clear. Study after study has shown women to be more risk-averse than men, across a range of activities, including the Wall Street businesses of investing and trading. Study after study has shown that women place greater emphasis on interpersonal relationships, and on nurturing them, than do men. And studies show that female managers are less focused on winning in the short term and are more long-term-oriented than their male counterparts.

Do any of these sound like qualities the big banks could use more of?

Perhaps as a result of the complementarity of differing approaches of men and women, numerous studies, including the annual Women Matter surveys by McKinsey & Co. and research by Catalyst, show that more diverse management teams are more successful management teams; they deliver higher returns for shareholders across industries, including banking. Academic research indicates that more diverse teams outperform even more capable management teams, a real “wow” of a finding.

How can this be? Because adding one more PhD in applied mathematics to a team already full of them has much less effect than adding someone with expertise in, say, managing people or in IT systems. If diversity of color and gender is a proxy for diversity of experience, then adding that diversity to management teams helps bring different perspectives to the table.

And yet, with all the debate our nation has had on how to reduce risk in our large banks and avoid a repeat of the industry’s violent boom-and-bust cycle, a real discussion has never taken place on diversity in the financial sector. The representation of women at the top levels of financial services has declined; today, one can count on one hand the number of women running operating businesses who report directly to the chief executives of the largest U.S. banks. At the large banks, women are well represented in the more long-term, client-oriented private banking businesses but substantially underrepresented in the more transactional, higher-risk trading businesses.

Is the problem overt discrimination? During my time at Wall Street leadership tables, I witnessed untold numbers of promotions of senior executives. Never once did I see someone turned down for a job because of race or gender, but on more occasions than I can count, I saw the promotions of people who looked and talked and acted a lot like the person promoting them. The executives doing the promoting claimed to be certain that this person was the best for the job at hand — and that the culture of urgency permeating Wall Street meant that “stretch assignments,” for people with whom they weren’t as familiar, were an unaffordable luxury. This was exacerbated as the downturn intensified, with senior executives placing more weight on having been in the trenches with the people they look to promote.

No one can know whether the financial downturn of the past few years would have been of a lesser degree, or otherwise different, had there been a greater range of backgrounds at the top of these firms. There is, however, no doubt that the industry suffered from “groupthink.” And it’s hard to argue that a broader spectrum of backgrounds and perspectives — and having more people in the room to ask “dumb questions” (such as why, exactly, is a collateralized debt obligation squared a good idea?) — would have made it any worse. As a result, few can argue that it is desirable to emerge from the downturn with less diverse management teams.

I well understand that the topic of diversity generates strong emotions. But bank regulators, boards of directors and chief executives owe it to depositors, shareholders and taxpayers to review dispassionately the research and facts — and then consider whether and how to work past “business as usual” to significantly improve progress on this front. All have, at their disposal, the tools needed for change. Bank regulators, for example, already rate management teams as part of their formal assessments. If they conclude that greater diversity of any kind reduces risk, they can take that into account on their ratings. This would spur change pretty quickly — without any quotas or changes in law.

Some argue that it is backwards to come out of the downturn with the big banks even bigger, given the problems they caused. One could also argue that emerging from the economic downturn with even more homogeneous management teams is a big fail. Another downturn could have an outsize impact on our economy — which means this topic deserves an objective, fact-based discussion to determine whether greater diversity is not merely a nice or a “right” thing to do but the smart thing to do.

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