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Would an All-Women Congress Solve the Fiscal-Cliff Faster? Would an All-Women Congress Solve the Fiscal-Cliff Faster?

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Columns / Gwen's Take

Would an All-Women Congress Solve the Fiscal-Cliff Faster?

(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

photo of Gwen Ifill
December 14, 2012

Maine Republican Susan Collins and 18 other members of the U.S. Senate gathered for a kind of celebratory interview the other day.

Their inquisitor was ABC's Diane Sawyer, who invited the sitting and incoming members of the vaunted upper chamber for a joint interview. All but one made it. Once they are sworn in, these 20 women will make up the largest cohort of female senators ever.

What difference does that make, you ask?


“I think if we were in charge of the Senate and of the administration, that we would have a budget deal by now,” Collins told Sawyer. “What I find is, with all due deference to our male colleagues, that women's styles tend to be more collaborative."

I can dig that. The frustration is so intense in Washington these days that it is indeed tempting to consider what things would be like if someone else were running the rodeo.

I allowed myself to ponder that gender fantasy this week as I attended a New York conference on women in business sponsored by the Toigo Foundation. In a businesslike ballroom high above Columbus Center in the Time-Warner Center, hundreds of female entrepreneurs, executives, corporate board members, and corner-office aspirants gathered to ask an ultimately unspoken question: “What if we ruled the world?”

If filmmaker Abigail Disney did, we would all know more about the heroic Liberian women in Pray the Devil Back to Hell who joined forces to oust a tyrant.

“A woman stands, pushes her sleeves up, and says, ‘What are we going to do today?’ ” Disney said.

If corporate board member Janet Hill ruled, she would share her top 10 list to living successfully, including this: “Don’t fear failure, because success is far more dangerous to the human condition.”

If 37-year-old international business expert Debbie McCoy had her way, we would all subscribe to her theory of “design thinking,” employing empathy as the first step to fulfilling ambition. But her definition of ambition is pursuing core values, not just personal enrichment.

Jeanne Sullivan, who manages $400 million through the venture capital firm she founded, remembers when her father told her as a child that she should grow up to be a teacher. She replied: “But I want to carry a briefcase.”

And Kelly Williams, who manages $27 billion in private-equity and venture-capital funds for investors and other clients, treats her law degree as a skill for problem solving--“filling a gap others aren’t filling.”

The Toigo audience listened in rapt silence, scribbling down the career tips and exchanging business cards afterward. The participants often leaned forward as they spoke, anxious to share what they knew.

They spoke of success and failure, of making new mistakes, of roller coasters and invisibility. (“It’s not that we’re not there,” Disney said. “We’ve been disappeared.”)

And they decided to lose the term "diversity" in favor of the word "inclusion"--embracing difference as a value rather than as a grudging responsibility. The only ones excluded from this particular conversion on this particular day were men.

We may have been sitting in the middle of Manhattan at the center of the reputedly vicious corporate-climbing universe, but that was not the mood in this room.

For my part, I reminded the attendees how far we actually have come, how remarkable it was that a generation of new voters has never seen a white man as secretary of State. You have to go back nearly 16 years to find one. (Warren Christopher, if you were wondering.)

Later in the day, I returned to Washington. The president and the speaker of the House were still wrestling at the edge of the fiscal cliff. U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice had withdrawn from consideration for secretary of State.

And I was reminded of what Sen. Collins surely knew when she shared her pipe dream with Diane Sawyer. Politics slows things down.

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