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Women Leaders Talk About Advancing in the Ranks
By Myra Thomas
Women executives are increasingly making their mark in secured finance by heading up divisions at banks or leading more entrepreneurial shops. It’s certainly helped that young women are graduating college in higher numbers, and more are now looking to finance as a suitable career path, when that wasn’t always the case. Data from McKinsey and LeanIn.org notes that in North America, women now account for over half of the entry-level work force in financial services.
It’s interesting to note that, while women make up 46 percent of financial services employees overall, the report also indicates that at the executive level, they are only 15 percent of that total. Their data shows that women in financial services are “24 percent less likely to attain their first promotion than their male peers, even though they request promotions at similar rates.” According to their report, women of color are having an even more difficult time, as they are 34 percent less likely to be granted their first promotion request than men in financial services.
Despite the daunting statistics regarding promotion, the women leaders we talked to are still hopeful about the future. But Cynthia Giles, division executive for Wells Fargo Commercial Banking, does acknowledge that the industry is facing the problem of how to get more women into a seat of power. “One of the challenges at the executive level is having a broad talent pool, that includes women, who have experience to take on the roles,” she says. Of course, over time, the number of executive women should expand as the pipeline increases. Giles adds, “If a firm wanted to speed up this process, it would have to intentionally expose women leaders to experiences. We would also have to move away from a ‘years of experience mentality’ to a ‘skills-based discussion.’” But there are certainly other challenges keeping more women from ascending to major leadership roles.
Attrition in the top ranks
Attrition is just one reason why women are not necessarily advancing up the ranks as they should. McKinsey and LeanIn.org note that company-level attrition was “either equal to or lower than attrition among males for every financial-services role, except for the most senior positions.” Part of the attrition problem is that qualified women may move on because they feel as if they are being ignored when it comes to leadership roles, notes Betty Hernandez, executive vice president and chief credit offi cer at North Mill Capital. “I always thought that I would earn what was due to me just by working hard,” Hernandez says. But she reminds women professionals that they need to know when to speak up and remind themselves and others of their worth.
Attrition is also attributable to the lack of work/life balance in many financial organizations, especially as female executives rise up the ranks. Hernandez notes that one of the biggest challenges women professionals often face is in starting and expanding their families. “This has created new demands for employers, such as a work-from-home policy,” she notes. Younger families need this flexibility in order to balance all of their demands. Hernandez adds, “When I worked at one of my first jobs, I was once asked by my team leader, when I was thinking about having children. I knew it wasn’t an appropriate question and spoke up to a different manager.” Nowadays, it would be unheard of to ask this question. And while the industry has come a long way in improving maternity leave options and flexibility, there is still more work to be done to support women returning from maternity leave.
Women, more so than men, also take more time-off to tend to children and other family members. Paula Currie, senior vice president, internal controls director, PNC Business Credit, believes that in order to retain women in the financial services industry, organizations need to develop programs that support women taking temporary leave and assist women re-entering the workforce. “Fostering a culture of work/ life balance is crucial for attracting and retaining good employees,” she notes. And she adds that paternity leave should also be a priority
of secured lenders too. “Paternity leave promotes gender equality at home and in the workplace and helps keep parents in the workforce,” Currie adds. “Paternity leave shifts the perception that caregiving is a female’s responsibility and provides a means for women to return to work sooner.” At the end of the day, paternity leave has a positive impact on the trajectory of a woman’s career.
The problem of unconscious or implicit bias
Many of the hurdles that women professionals face today aren’t explicit, making it much harder to fight against or even unclear that there may be a gender problem at all. But it’s imperative for top brass and the C-suite to be invested in the process to make change happen, says Currie. Business leaders and managers need to take the lead to flip the narrative. Employees require the tools to make decisions related to hiring, promotions, and performance reviews, she adds, so that biases are removed from the process. Decisionmakers can hold employees accountable and reward those who promote and foster workplace diversity.
But bias is an unconscious reaction, making it harder to consistently change the behavior. Giles adds that the only way to fight unconscious bias is to value the contributions of all employees. Plus, secured lenders need to “create awareness, promote open communication, and value a credible challenge” when there is a complaint of bias made, she says.
How to succeed in business (and really try)
So, what exactly do women leaders recommend female professionals do if they want to move up the ranks in secured finance? One of the strongest traits that women, as well as men, need to have is an inquisitive nature, says Giles. “The more obvious traits that have helped me achieve success are a natural curiosity to learn, need to be excellent at even the smallest tasks, and a desire to see my work impact the customer, my team, and my company.” According to Giles, secured lending was a great proving ground to flex her mental muscle, given the changing nature of every deal and the variety of clients. She acknowledges that secured lenders and other financial fields, such as investment banking, have not always had great reputations for being friendly to women, but Giles also believes times are improving for female professionals in these industries.
It also pays to be forthright when it comes to career aspirations. Currie notes, “If you want to get ahead in your career, you need to make your goals and aspirations known not only to your direct manager, but also to those in decision-making and managerial roles throughout the organization. In my case, each advancement in my career came as a result of vocalizing my desire to take on new roles and expanded responsibilities.” In addition to making career aspirations known, all employees need the support of sponsors to help them advance. Currie points to two sponsors who were instrumental in her career development and who actively championed her advancement within the organization.
In addition to having sponsors, it takes effort on the part of the professional to work hard and learn from colleagues and those with more experience. Hernandez says that creating a network of colleagues and finding mentors can be crucial to advancing in a job, whether they be inside of your organization or outside through industry contacts. “This is just another reason why being involved with SFNet, either at the local chapter level or at the national level, is so important,” she adds. “The contacts you make there can last throughout your career. I chair the Chapter Committee at SFNet on a national basis, and we are encouraging the local chapters that already don’t have subcommittees for both women and young professionals to create them.” Today, more women are attending the SFNet convention than ever before, and the Women in Secured Finance Committee is the largest committee on a national level.
Formal mentoring vs. company culture
Another positive effort is the formalized initiatives that larger organizations and banks are making, including sponsoring affinity groups and events for women employees or those who might share a heritage, sexual orientation or time in the military service. But whether the mentoring is formal or informal, this can also be critical in promoting and retaining valued employees, female and male. Large organizations such as PNC Bank and Wells Fargo do have such formalized programs, but smaller firms often do not.
But the onus for a woman’s professional success is often dependent on assessing an organization’s culture, says Joye Lynn, head of the corporate ABL group with Wells Fargo Capital Finance. “Of the people we have hired recently, I tell them to talk to everyone on the team that they can, from the top to mid-level managers,” she says. “You want to know how they communicate, and it’s especially imperative for women to know the team dynamics and how that team is thought of throughout the organization.” Some secured lenders are simply more receptive to women employees than others.
It’s essential to find out if there are chances for growth. Lynn advises women to scope out their prospective employer or a new team as best they can, if they are looking for a new job or promotion within their current organization. The approach has paid off for Lynn. She also credits her ability to not fear asking questions. “Many people are afraid to ever look unprepared, but there are times when you need to ask even some of the most obvious questions,” she says. Remember to ask for help, when it’s needed.
Organizations can write all of the proactive policies that they want, but it takes networking and mentors to get ahead in a competitive industry, especially when women are still advancing up the ranks. Sydnee Breuer, executive vice president, Western region manager, Rosenthal & Rosenthal, notes, “You have to have friends along the way. Moving into a leadership position simply doesn’t happen overnight.” Once a professional proves their worth, sponsors and mentors can offer suggestions about accelerating a career path or assessing the best team or organization to work for.
Mentors can come in all stripes too, says Breuer. “I looked to a lot of different places for mentors, male and female, and some formal and others not so formal. I wanted to see how they did things.” Plus, says Breuer, she learned to be more proactive in her job search and promotion attempts. “Certainly, one of the turning points for me was taking more risk than I was historically comfortable with,” she says. That can often be the case for women professionals, especially those who find themselves as one of the few in an organization.
The value of women professionals
Fortunately, secured lenders are getting the message that women executives bring significant value to the organization. McKinsey’s research has shown that “companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 21 percent more likely to outperform on profitability and 27 percent more likely to demonstrate superior value creation”. Women proved a different way of looking at things, says Breuer. Sometimes it might be a more collaborative approach, as women work to gain a foothold in an organization.
Executive recruiters, such as Tim Knight, vice president of ThinkingAhead, see the value of women hires firsthand. “They bring creativity to the table and counter the ‘group thinking’ mentality,” he says. He has observed changes in secured finance after more than two decades recruiting for financial firms and banks. The diversity of the marketplace demands it, he adds. “It makes sense that companies want to have more diversity, since it increasingly reflects their client base and the people they want to do business with.” He is also optimistic about the place of women leaders in the industry, as more and more companies are realizing the value female professionals bring to the business.
Plus, the greying of the profession is also demanding secured lenders reach out to more entry-level women in finance. The industry needs to work harder to get the word out about the opportunities in secured lending, he notes. Organizations simply can’t keep “cannibalizing” each other and luring top executives away from one another, says Knight. Training, recruitment and strong marketing to a more diverse employee base will be essential to keeping secured lenders profitable.
Studies do show that a diverse workforce brings unique ideas and perspectives that result in increased innovation and productivity, as well as greater employee retention. Lynn notes, “Having women and minorities in senior leadership positions is critical to retention. New and seasoned team members need to be able to look around the room, office, those on a call, or at a town hall presentation and see leaders who look like them.” At the end of the day, it simply makes sense to the bottom line to include women in the executive ranks.