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What do women bring to the table?

• Published on 09 Jun. 2011 • Category : Economy

Shortly after Iceland’s descent into financial chaos two years ago, the Icelandic people decided it was time for change, and replaced their erstwhile male prime minister with a woman called Johanna Sigurdardottir. An elegant 68-year-old, with coiffed white-gold hair, Sigurdardottir’s resume includes a stint as a stewardess at Loftleiðir Icelandic Airlines, and she became the world’s first openly gay premier. Her accession to power was heralded with a spate of articles about Iceland’s strong females. Women, we were told, were “cleaning up the men’s mess“ (Spiegel). They were “leading the rescue” (Guardian). Most impressively, perhaps, they would “save banking” (BBC).
What do women bring to the table that men may not? Sylvia Perrins, CEO of the British National Skills Academy for Financial Services, recently offered some suggestions. Women, she says, look at problems differently, and they offer fresh perspectives based on different experiences to men. “The best teams,” Perrin concludes “are made up of a different mixture of skills and backgrounds which bring spark and innovation to organisations.”

Research backs this up. This month in the Harvard Business Review, academics published a finding that groups that include both women and men are more intelligent than groups made up of men alone, regardless of the intelligence levels of the individuals involved. It’s not just about gender, it’s about some of the qualities we might perceive as feminine, as one of the authors, Anita Woolley, observed:

[P]art of that finding can be explained by differences in social sensitivity, which we found is also important to group performance. Many studies have shown that women tend to score higher on tests of social sensitivity than men do. So what is really important is to have people who are high in social sensitivity, whether they are men or women.

Importantly, businesses that have more women on their executive boards tend to get better results. Shareholders are becoming increasingly desirous of companies with women on their boards. Women are often seen as being more wary of risk than men — a quality that is increasingly valued in the post-financial crisis world.

So why is it that only 12 Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs? Here are just a few reasons: In their first jobs, post-MBA, women receive on average $4,600 less pay than men, and they occupy lower level management positions. They are often mentored well enough, but not adequately sponsored and as a result men are more likely to be promoted. In a Wall Street Journal task force on women in the economy held in April this year, every female participant felt that progress had stalled in improving the status of women in finance, and three-quarters felt that the situation was getting worse.

The New York Forum cannot fix this problem, but we have invited a number of brilliant women to speak. We were thrilled to confirm that the senior advisor to President Obama, Valerie Jarrett, will attend. Entrepreneurial leaders like Linda Rottenberg (Endeavor) and Hilary Mason (Bit.ly) and CEOs such as Lynn Tilton (Patriarch Partners) and Anne Lauvergeon (Areva) will be amongst our group.

Tilton, in particular, has made a splash in financial circles. In a recent New York Magazine profile, Tilton explained, ”I take pride in the fact that I can be all woman in a man’s world.” And she outlined the business philosophy she follows at Patriarch, which makes it seem almost unique as a private equity firm:

Women aren’t inspired by money. I think we’re more sensitive. This is not just a business to me; it’s people’s lives.

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