I have been inspired by Jonas Ridderstrale, a speaker at the AtelierSAP conference in Berlin last week, to speculate on what would be the state of the world today if Lehman Brothers had not been founded in 1850 by Henry, Emanuel and Mayer, but had instead been started by Henrietta, Emanuelle and May to become Lehman Sisters.

On September 15, 2008 Financial Services firm Lehman Brothers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Author: David Shankbone; GFDLicense; via Wikimedia Commons

Lehman Brothers was forced into this position through the mass exodus of its clients, drastic losses in its share price and the devaluation of its assets by the credit rating agencies, mainly driven by the number of defaults in their sub-prime mortgage business. With holdings of over $600 billion in assets it was the fourth largest investment bank in the US and it remains the largest bankruptcy filing in history, many seeing it as having played a major role in precipitating the global financial meltdown that we are facing today. Major Banks across the globewho dealt with Lehman Brothers lost billions, bankrupting millions of small investors and what followed has been called “the perfect storm” of economic distress factors, which we are still struggling with today.

(Note that I hesitate to call it a “crisis” as traditionally a crisis has a beginning and an end, and I believe that this is not so much a crisis as a dramatic shift in the economic environment and in business fundamentals that will necessitate rethinking of many business principles that we have taken for granted as “truisms” over the last 200 years, such as the ready availability of loans to fund growth.)

Chairman and CEO Richard S. Fuld Jr had been with Lehman Brothers for over 30 years and was the longest serving CEO on Wall Street (1994-2008), which should have already been a red flag (see “Hero to Zero” posted October 29, 2012), and he also had a history of long serving underlings such as Chris Pettit his second in command for 20 years finallyserving as President and COO (Second warning sign see “How do you know when you should step aside” posted April 2, 2012). In 2008, even as Lehman Brothers was disintegrating Fuld’s annual salary was $22 million and he is estimated to have earned in the vicinity of $500 million during his tenure at Lehman Brothers.The bankruptcy examiners found that he had also been involved in “cosmetic accounting practices” in his quarterly reporting to make Lehman Brother’s finances appear less shaky than they really were.

Author: World Resources Institute Staff; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

I have long speculated on whether women are better managers than men (see “Do women make better managers” posted November 22, 2010), despite the fact that today they fill so few board seats, estimated at 10% in the western world in 2012 (16% UK, 13% US), but the question now is whether women would have made the same insane gambles and been driven by greed as much as did the leaders at Lehman brothers.

I believe from personal observation within my own family, friends and colleagues over the last 40 years, and supported by numerous studies over the decades (example “Men, Women and Risk Aversion” paper) that women are definitely more risk averse than are men, which may explain the low number of IT company start-ups by women entrepreneurs, Arianna Huffington being one rare example. Couple this with women generally possessing a greater social conscience and sense of responsibility for the longer term than do men, and it brings me to the belief that the world would currently be in a calmer and safer state had it been Lehman Sisters rather than Lehman Brothers that had had control of the $600 billion. It is not that business women are totally risk averse, it is just that they are more risk cautious than men, and are therefore unlikely to bet everything on the throw of a single die.

I believe that the difference between men and women in their attitudes to risk can be summed up in the following quotes:

If it’s a good idea with calculated risk, go ahead and do it. It’s much easier to apologize than it is to get permission.–Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, computer scientist and pioneer (1906-1992).

Author: James S. Davis; via Wikimedia Commons


Life isn’t worth living unless you’re willing to take some big chances and go for broke.–Eliot Wiggington, American historian and writer.

As Jonas Ridderstrale said during his presentation “Companies have been built by men, for men, but we will need to rely more heavily on women to find the talent needed to build companies for the future.”

A recent study by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), an independent university think-tank in the UK has found that women outperform men in almost every single aspect of higher education, and that the number of women at university began to exceed the number of men nearly 20 years ago. The study shows that not only are there more of them studying, but they are less likely to drop out and will most times end up with a better degree. It also found that about 50% of women now opt for higher education compared to about 37% of men. It is no different in the US where American women today are more likely to earn college degrees than men, with women receiving 57%of all bachelor’s and 60% of all master’s degrees.

Sadly however, a recent survey shows that when it comes to science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) they’re still far behind men. In fact, in the US women receive only 21% of degrees in the field of computer and information science, and only 19% of engineering degrees. European numbers are similar but are rising steadily with support from EU initiatives like “Science. It’s a Girl Thing”, which despite being lauded for its intent, was criticised for its representation of young women (focussing on giggling, stilettos and makeup,so no doubt an initiative designed by men). It does however show a changing and growing commitment to attracting women into the STEM courses.

I have little doubt that this move to STEM courses by women will change dramatically over the coming decade, particularly as women realise that this will open higher paying opportunities for them, and I believe that as women take their rightful and equal place at the highest corporate levels, we will actually build a better and more sustainable business world.



  1. Sami Hero says:

    Hi Les,

    Great read as always. I would argue though that the women who make it to the top demonstrate very much the same behavior as the men. It’s just that there are fewer of them (thinking of Carly Fiorina specifically). Don’t take me wrong, my best bosses have been women – I’m just saying that to get to the top you will need to demonstrate borderline sociopathic tendencies at least in the US whether you’re a man or a woman. I’m hearing stories from IBM now that there’s even less empathy with Ginny than there was before with Sam,

    just a thought.


    • leshayman says:

      Sami, I agree with you about the toughness needed to get to the top irrespective of gender… my most driven boss was a woman. What I believe is different is willingness to “go for broke” and risk everything which I believe is very different between the sexes. As a generalisation, I have found that women tend to make more studied and thoughtful decisions than do most men. Les

  2. suchitra says:

    Hi Les,

    Look forward to reading your blog ! and more so when u write on topics that are related to women at the workplace, since its a topic thats dear to me and I also own diversity & inclusion for the India region. I tend to agree with sami on how women tend to demonstrate borderline sociopathic tendencies, atleast most women at the top, somehow seem like they’re too uptight, or they’ve lost out on something in life, like they’re divorced, or unmarried or have no kids, or just dont dress up and take care of them selves because they take their roles too seriously and dont revel in the normal things women enjoy doing. Reminds me of another blog post of yours – being serious is overated !
    In my 15 years of working, I’ve never had a women boss who could manage it all well, so I wouldnt say there are too many examples out there of women who you can really be called role models. I’d love to see more happy, successful women, who excel at the workplace but find time for other passions in life as well, without being bogged down by the boardroom pressures !

    I’m reposting part of your article on the BWN network in India, would like everyone to read it.

    • leshayman says:

      Suchitra, I agree with you and Sami on the “borderline sociopathic tendencies” that both men and women tend to exhibit to get to the top. I just believe that thier risk levels tend to differ quite markedly, no matter how driven they are, Les

  3. profoundthought1 says:

    Hello Les,
    I completely agree with you with regards to the differences in the risk-taking behavior of men and women and I think that this difference should be leveraged by organizations by having a mix of men and women to maintain a balance. For the growth of any organization, there needs to be some risk-taking and to not go overboard with it, there needs to be someone to control it.
    What I don’t understand is – why are people so much against a woman who takes tough decisions! Specifically the comment from the reader above seems very biased. What has being divorced, being single, having no kids etc. have to do with a woman’s capability to lead an organization?

    • leshayman says:

      Profoundthought1, in answer to your question … absolutely nothing. It’s just another excuse for the glass ceiling, no different to the excuse for keeping women out of top jobs because of monthly hormonal changes. Companies have been built by men for men for over 200 years, and most men are trying to protect that special status. It’s similar to King Canute trying to stop the waves … The end result is an inevitability !

      • profoundthought1 says:

        Thanks Les. But the problem is that this is the thought process of some women too – like the reader above! So we cannot blame only men for giving this excuse. Until people start paying attention to the capabilities needed for a job instead of the personal life and gender of the person, they will not find the right people for the job – more importantly at the higher levels. The comment above is a manifestation of the mentality that a woman’s first job is to get married, make a family and then do anything outside the home – if there’s time left after that! There have been wonderful women who have managed both successfully but it doesn’t mean that every woman has to do that! It’s high time that this mindset gets changed.

      • leshayman says:

        Profoundthought1, sadly I have to agree as at a dinner party last night it was a female friend of mine who stated “women make lesser employees because of their hormones”. As the need for real talent accelerates the only workable solution will have to be the right person for the job, but it won’t come quickly as Managers still prefer to hire in their own image. Les

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