Clearly, some greater force is at work here, something more than the traditional clubbiness of Wall Street or the obstacles that still confront women juggling work and family. It may be that women perceive and act on risk in subtly different ways; that they don't, as a general rule, embrace the kind of massively aggressive behavior that brought us a Dow of 14,000 and then, seemingly overnight, a crash of epic proportions. Whether it be from a protectiveness born of biology or a reticence imposed by social norms, women may be less inclined than men to place the kind of bets that can get them in real trouble.
Conversely, women may also be more inclined to blow the whistle on others' risky business. Consider the case of Brooksley Born, former head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, who in 1997 called for greater disclosure and new rules to govern the exploding world of financial derivatives. She was chastised by some of the most powerful men on Wall Street, and her recommendations were ignored. But she was right.
So was Sherron Watkins, the first Enron executive to warn its CEO that the company was heading for deep financial trouble. So was Coleen Rowley, the FBI agent who prodded her superiors -- unsuccessfully -- to investigate the men who later unleashed the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
We don't yet know why women respond differently to danger signals -- and earlier, it appears -- than men. We don't know why women either shy away, or are effectively banned, from businesses that thrive on risk. One possibility, explored in a fascinating study published last year by John Coates and Joe Herbert of Cambridge University, is that women simply don't have the testosterone for it; on the trading floor, they deduced, higher profits literally correlate with higher levels of the male hormone. Another, examined in laboratory experiments conducted by Muriel Niederle and Lise Vesterlund at the University of Pittsburgh, is that women are far less inclined than men to bet their pay on performance, even if they have evidence to suggest that they are superior performers.
Whatever the reason, the experience of the past year suggests that we desperately need to bring more women into leadership positions on Wall Street, in politics, in regulatory bodies and in American life generally. For decades, corporations and financial firms have sponsored expensive training programs to promote more women into their ranks. They have launched much-needed maternity policies and flexible work arrangements. Most of these initiatives, however, have been pursued to make life easier for the women involved -- or, more cynically, to remove the threat of lawsuit or adverse publicity for the firms.