A recent article in New York magazine made a compelling case that Wall Street might function better if more women were in charge.

Though there's no way of knowing if the financial crisis might have been averted if more women ran financial firms, new research shows that women are less prone to the type of risk-taking that brought down some of the country's most esteemed investment banks, not to mention several commercial banks.

You'd think, then, that corporations would take whatever steps necessary to attract, retain and promote top female talent, yet a new survey from the Financial Women's Association showed that the ranks of women in top jobs are actually thinning.At the largest publicly traded companies in the metropolitan New York area (including Wall Street firms), the study found that the number of women in C-suite positions fell to 9.8 percent in 2009, from 10.3 percent in 2008, and that the number of companies that had no female executives at all increased 27 percent.

It's tempting to look at these numbers and conclude that executive suites are still largely boys' clubs, but at least part of the decline can be explained by the fact that many womenvoluntarily jump off the fast track because they want to raise families. It's hard to achieve a work-life balance working 80 hours a week.

That's why companies serious about retaining female talent can't get complacent, retired Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy said at a recent luncheon hosted by Catalyst Inc., an organization promoting the advancement of women in business. In a question-and-answer session with Catalyst CEO Ilene Lang, Mulcahy said lots of companies have programs aimed at grooming more female executives, but that doesn't mean much if C-suites are still dominated by men. "Never get confused about results, and hold yourself accountable," she advised. "Then we'll start to move quicker."

She also said that women executives must make the time for mentoring and coaching, no matter how busy they get as they move up the executive ranks. Mulcahy admitted that she was a reluctant role model when she first became CEO. Her attitude changed after a friend said that if she didn't she speak up for women in business, who would?

Zabeen Hirji, the head of human resources at Royal Bank of Canada, told me that she too was once uncomfortable being viewed as a role model-until her young son reminded her that, like it or not, she was an inspiration for both women and minorities. Now Hirji never misses an opportunity-from speaking engagements to brief encounters in elevators-to encourage women and minorities to work hard and set goals.

"You can talk all you want about the great things you are doing in diversity, but people need to see others like them succeeding," Hirji said. "The power of role models is huge."

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