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Advocating for Women Leaders

iStock_000004797699XSmallBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

“We want it to be unremarkable that the number of women in the boardroom at least equals that of men,” said Anne Izzillo, President of the Financial Women’s Association, during her opening talk at the organization’s annual dinner this week. “We want it to be unremarkable to have senior women running major US and global organizations.”

When these things become unremarkable, Izzillo believes, it will signify that women are getting the same opportunities and encouragement as men to lead, that it won’t be a surprise or a big deal when a woman beats the odds to become the boss – because, by that point, the odds won’t be stacked against women in the first place.

She said that the only way to break down the last barriers standing in the way of women’s leadership is through active sponsorship – advocacy and outreach from the top for talented women who deserve a shot at a stretch assignment or challenging role so they can show off what they can do.

The dinner, which honored Paula Gavin, President of National Urban Fellows, and Maria Bartiromo, Anchor of CNBC’s “Closing Bell” and Anchor and Managing Editor of “Wall Street Journal Report with Maria Bartiromo,” celebrated the mentorship and sponsorship of women. After all, these relationships are at the core of how people advance in the workplace. Getting more women to the top will require careful advocacy for talented women by those who are already there.

Stark Data

In March, the FWA released its latest FWA100 Report [PDF] on the percentage of women on corporate boards in the tri-state region. The study showed that the percentage of board seats held by women has gone almost unchanged since the last report was released 2 years ago (today, it’s 17.7%, whereas in 2009, it was 17.8%).

Additionally, the report says, in 2007, only four companies had no women on their board. Now, that number has increased to ten. “I wasn’t surprised. I was disappointed, but not surprised,” Izzillo said, pointing out that many companies have taken a hit by the economy – some that were on the report previously have been shuttered, and some have merged with other companies.

“But I do want to say that we have to talk more and more about the sponsorship of women, and about the sponsorship of women onto boards.”

She continued, “We hear it all the time – that companies can’t find women who are board-ready. That’s just not the case. There are databases full of qualified women that are available to access by anyone who wants to look.”

“There are women who are board ready. The boards just aren’t women ready.”

Izzillo suggested that if the issue isn’t addressed, it could be a problem for companies in the future. She pointed out legislation in the EU and some countries in Asia to mandate board diversity through quotas. “I don’t think quotes will happen in the US and I don’t think they should, because we need the best people for the roles regardless of gender. But we need to be sure we interview a more diverse group for open positions.”

She also pointed out legislation EU currently under review that could require companies doing business in Europe (including US based companies) to have 30% of board directorships go to women.

“US companies, I believe, will loose competitiveness if they don’t jump on this train,” she said.

The Next Generation

The FWA has long engaged in helping women advance in the workplace, as well as helping young women achieve their dreams. Its mentorship program is decades old, pairing up seasoned women in the financial industry with young women from Murry Bergtraum High School in Lower Manhattan and Baruch College.

At the event this week, two mentee scholars shared their experiences with their mentors, discussing the invaluable lessons they have learned.

The first, Jasmine Magnum, a senior at MBHS, called her mentor her “lifelong coach,” explaining how she has helped her through challenging situations, provided her with advice, and counseled her on which college programs to apply to. Most of all, the FWA mentoring program has helped her cultivate the confidence that will guide her for the rest of her life. She said, “I can’t recite verbatim everything the FWA has said to me. But I leave here with the utmost confidence.”

Magnum added, “Most of all, I leave remembering the impact that my mentor, Linda Kenyon, has had on my life.”

Similarly, mentee Ladyane Lima, a senior at Baruch College, explained how the skills she has gained through her FWA mentor have given her more options. Born in a small village in Brazil, moving to Rio de Janeiro, and then attending college in New York, she explained that, up to now, her journey through life has been drawn by necessity. “My necessity for success has led me to paths that I never considered for myself,” she said.

Through the FWA mentor program, Lima says she has gained the confidence to launch her career. “The things I want to achieve today come out of options, not necessity,” she added.

Both of the women were outstanding academically – and have benefited from the guidance and support of experienced women. Yet, as they progress though their careers, how can be we sure that they, and talented women like them, will continue to rise?

“I think we all agree we will walk away tonight so optimistic,” Bartiromo commented, regarding the young mentees. “But it’s a reminder to us all that nothing is more important than leadership and mentoring.”

Gavin said, “If you can help someone else to reach their full potential, you have fulfilled your own destiny.”

1 Response

  1. Christine

    Mentoring is so important. I am very pleased a work at a company in which women are well represented at the executive level. I have learned many success tips from my mentor and her guidance has been invaluable.