Janet Hanson

BOSTON (WOMENSENEWS)–As the number of women in the top corporate jobs continues to climb, many wonder if the ethical woes that shaped much of last year’s financial news will decline in tandem.

Some argue that women in the big jobs are more likely to be whistleblowers, like Cynthia Cooper and Sherron Watkins, because women have different values and life experiences; others say, nonsense. Look at Martha Stewart, the home products superstar still trying to resolve allegations that she traded securities based on insider information.

With the memory of Cooper’s and Watkins’ corporate heroism still fresh, this core debate intensified the discussions at this year’s Harvard Business School’s women in business conference. More than 400 female graduate business students and high-powered executives spent the day discussing boundaries and breakthroughs, families and fortunes, and the role of women in current and future corporate controversies.

Catalyst, a market research firm, reports that women accounted for 7.1 percent of the 496 chief financial officers in America’s 500 largest companies last year. That number, published in its “2002 Catalyst Census of Women Corporate Officers and Top Earners in the Fortune 500,” is up from 5.6 percent in 2000. Overall, the census reported, women represented 15.7 percent of all corporate officers (or 2,140 out of 13,673) in those 500 companies last year, up from 12.5 percent in 2000 and 8.7 percent in 1995.

In a session titled “Corporate America’s Crisis of Confidence and its Impact on Women in Finance,” panelists debated the growing challenges of corporate governance and the new legislative regulations aimed at preventing future malfeasance, of the likes seen by Arthur Anderson, Enron, Tyco International and WorldCom. All agreed that there’s no easy cure for Wall Street’s economic woes, but some on the panel did suggest that greater diversity in the upper echelon of corporate America could minimize future damage.

“Men are very competitive with each other,” said Deirdre O’Donnell, senior vice president of fixed income, sales and trading at Lehman Brothers. “Men want the immediate scorecard on a daily basis. I think women are driven less by money and more by a desire for recognition of their accomplishments.”

O’Donnell theorized that women are generally less focused on gaining personal wealth–the root of many of last year’s corporate scandals, involving executive compensation and the manipulation of stock prices–because they are rarely the sole breadwinner in a family. A second difference, she said, is that most women aren’t as driven as men to climb the corporate ladder–and, consequently, less fearful to point out ethical wrongdoings–because they know they’ll soon be jumping off of it to start a family.

Judith Rosener, a professor at the Graduate School of Management at the University of California, Irvine and author of numerous publications on women at work, says the dissimilarities don’t stop there.

“There’s something fundamentally different between men and women,” said Rosener, 73, in a telephone interview from California. “Men are more outcome-oriented, while women are typically more interested in the process. We’re more detail-oriented.”

In support of her argument, Rosener simply points to Time magazine’s Persons of the Year 2002: Cooper, Watkins and Colleen Rowley. Cautious of making too sweeping a generalization, Rosener said she wasn’t the least bit surprised that all three whistleblowers–at the WorldCom, Enron and the FBI, respectively–were women.

“Women have a tradition and history of being the outsiders,” said Rosener, now at work on a new book tentatively titled “Hardwiring at Work.” She adds, “So, we see things differently. It’s not that we’re better or more ethical than men, but I think we ask new kinds of questions . . . that the good ol’ boy network don’t want to say.”

Some Question Gendered Ethical, Financial Differences

Olive Darragh, director of financial institutions practice at the Boston office of the international consulting firm McKinsey and Company and a panelist at the school’s finance discussion, rejected any suggestion that gender played a role in the professional decisions made by Time’s honorees. Otherwise, she asked, how could one explain Martha Stewart? The Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice Department are currently investigating Stewart for alleged insider trading surrounding her sales of 4,000 shares of ImClone Systems stocks in December 2001.

“A lot of senior women executives at Enron never talked about the problems at the company, and got very rich like many of the men who have gotten all of the negative attention,” Darragh said. “I have a hard time with these kinds of generalizations.

“When women are leading companies in equal numbers as men,” she added, “I think it’s unlikely to be dramatically different than it is today.”

Others at the conference shared Darragh’s opinion.

“People in power in corporate America are faced with the same ethical decisions, no matter if they are a man or a woman,” said Lucy Cummings, a second-year student at Harvard Business School and a member of the Women’s Student Association, sponsor of the daylong conference. “I don’t believe that the decisions they make are because of their gender.”

Janet Hanson, founder of Milestone Capital Management, an institutional money market fund with more than $2 billion in assets, agrees that women don’t hold a monopoly on scruples. But she does think promoting and recruiting more women at the highest levels of business will unquestionably change how decisions are made.

“I think you have to look at the skill sets that women bring to the table–power of intuition, analytical skills–and then figure out how to leverage that in your corporation,” said Hanson, a former vice president an investment banking firm and one of Women’s eNews’ 21 Leaders for the 21st Century last year. “You want to put women in leadership and authority because they will complement their male counterparts.

“If you lack diversity you’re going to have one opinion and that’ll be the consensus,” she added. “Right now, most women aren’t at the table to offer an opinion.”

On the five-member Securities and Exchange Commission, only one woman, Cynthia Glassman, is currently serving–which has become something of the norm. Laura Unger was the lone woman among President Bill Clinton’s six appointees to the S.E.C., while the first President Bush appointed none. On the newly created five-member Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, charged with overseeing the auditing industry and restoring credibility to the markets, Kayla Gillan is the only woman. Then again, like her male counterparts, Gillan approved board members’ recent decision to pay themselves a yearly salary of $452,000 ($560,000 for the acting chairman, Charles D. Niemeier), saying it’s the price of doing business. The PCAOB receives fees from the public companies and accounting firms it monitors.

The question is, however, what impact will the current handful of powerful women in finance, and those who follow, have in restoring investor confidence?

“Given the opportunity to do something unethical, there’s no brain-chip that women possess that prevents them from doing it,” Hanson said. “The backlash of these corporate scandals is that all men are bad, and of course that’s not true. But they’re looking bad because they’re the ones who are at the top.”

Jeff Lemberg is a freelance writing living in Boston. Lemberg recently won the Society of Professional Journalists’ Mark of Excellence Award for his Women’s eNews story, “Spouse Abuse in South Asian Marriages May Be High.”

For more information:

Time magazine–“Persons of the Year 2002”:

Harvard Business School–Women’s Student Association
Dynamic Women in Business 2003 conference:

2002 Census of Women Corporate Officers and Top Earners of the Fortune 500
(Adobe Acrobat PDF format):