Impact: How Women are Leveling the Playing Field

iStock_000009056376XSmallBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

On Tuesday night, American Banker magazine celebrated the Top Women in Banking and Finance with its annual awards dinner. This year, the theme was impact, and the evening celebrated women who are not only serving as role models for women in the industry, but changing the way the industry works for women.

Irene Dorner, CEO of HSBC Bank USA and the Top Women in Banking honoree, gave a powerful speech about how diversity can help improve the industry, as well as its reputation. She called out a culture of systemic bias and encouraged leaders to change it.

“I know plenty about soccer, cricket, football, cars… Do I care about them? No,” she said. “But does anyone ever ask me about my shoes? Rarely.” As the audience laughed, she continued, “But there are other manifestations of bias that are much more dangerous than a pair of shoes.”

According to Dorner, instilling a culture of true meritocracy would change the system to one where female leaders can thrive at work, where the right people make it to the top jobs, and where everyone can be their authentic selves. On top of that, she said, the industry would renew its standing in the eyes of the general public.

Changing the Culture of Banking

“I am enormously humbled and indeed thrilled for this vote of confidence in me and in HSBC,” Dorner said. While HSBC has owned up to its missteps, she continued, “frankly we’ve still got a lot to do.”

The whole industry has a lot to do, she continued. “Trust in our industry has plummeted. Trust is something that takes years to create and seconds to destroy. Our standing hasn’t recovered in stead with our balance sheets.”

The issue comes down to culture, she explained, and culture is difficult to change. “To change the way we are perceived, we must do three things. We must be authentic. We must be sustainable. And we must be courageous.”

Dorner explained that authenticity comes from a company’s people being able to bring their whole selves to work every day. And sustainability has to do, not just with the environment, but with a company’s ability to further the long term interests of all of its stakeholders – its workforce, shareholders, and customers.

“We must make sure that how we achieve is more important than what we achieve,” she said. “And more of what we’ve done in the past is not going to get us to where we need to be. We need to change.”

This change would be ushered in by creating a level playing field, where women and people in the minority can thrive. “Who thinks we have a meritocracy,” Dorner asked the audience. Next, she asked if they could think of an executive, “and you can not think, for the life of you, how they got there.”

As the audience laughed, Dorner continued, “Why is it, if we all know the answer to that question, we don’t have a meritocracy?” In a true meritocracy, people wouldn’t get jobs unless they truly deserve them. The answer, she said, comes down to the stubbornness of the status quo and unconscious bias. “It takes courage to change the status quo.”

“We must do more to create a level playing field for women. Do it because merit is a step toward renewing our industry. There are a lot of women who can get us to where we want to be.”

Leveling the Playing Field

While Dorner was focused on changing the culture of the industry, Barbara Rehm, Editor-at-Large of American Banker, threw her support behind quotas as a way to level the playing field for women.

“I have to admit, I have never thought quotas solved problems. I was brought up in a conservative Republican household and taught that success was the product of hard work. Period. And there is no doubt that hard work, persistence, tenacity, smarts, and creativity are all key to getting ahead. But who here doubts that many women with these traits get passed over for bigger jobs on a daily basis? I truly believe that time alone will not fix this problem.”

Rehm suggested that by ensuring more women are on corporate boards, the percentage of women in networks of power will increase, thereby also increasing the percentage of women in senior jobs. More women on boards would have the influence to nominate other women for executive management jobs, women who may be overlooked by a traditionally male-dominated board. All in all, she continued, this change would be good for companies, not just women.

“Research has proven time and time again that diversity results in better decisions – better risk management and, frankly, better profits,” she said.

Over the years, the onus of responsibility in advancing women leaders has shifted from women themselves to the companies and industries in which they work. Now that rising numbers of women are reaching levels of influence within their organizations, we are able to see a new phase: women working to change their companies’ cultures and the ways in which women are hired and promoted. Whether the focus is on culture change or quota, a dialogue on who gets top jobs and why can’t hurt the cause of equality. Simply having the discussion is an important step toward creating a level playing field as well.

3 Responses

  1. The business case is clear: women are good for business, top leadership and corporate boards but women have yet to ascend to these ranks in meaningful numbers. As remedies designed to level the playing field, instilling a meritocracy or installing quotas are extremely imperfect.

    In a world where influence is the currency of business (and power) I don’t think a meritocracy is happening any time soon. Besides, a pure meritocracy (will there be tests and/or check lists?) does not take into account the larger context. We live in a complex, competitive global community in which EQ and “soft skills” are increasingly and deservedly valued. We’re no longer in an information age which would gibe better with a meritocracy and instead are in what Dan Pink calls the Conceptual Age in which critical thinking and right brain functions are necessary to arrive at innovative and creative solutions. How do we measure someone’s ability to be innovative? This is a function of so much more than subject matter expertise; an environment that welcomes and encourages creative solutions and independent thinking,

    In terms of quotas, it is and has always been a mixed bag. If the idea is that women will nominate and hire other women just because they’re women, my worry is that it will encourage the self same cronyism that we’re trying to transcend. Despite it’s being tone deaf and a boneheaded turn of a phrase, MItt Romney ‘s “binders full of women” is extremely instructive and illustrative of what I’ve been saying for years: if binders-full of qualified women exist and no one knows, do they make a sound? Institutions can mandate any number of palliatives but until the women in the pipeline are able to showcase their skills, take credit where it’s due, promote their own brand, etc. there can’t be meaningful or significant change. How else can we explain having so many women “At the Verge,” but who can’t (or don’t know how to) breakthrough?
    Happy to chat offline with anyone who’s interested.

  2. Monica Duggal

    We definitely need the legislation and quotas. The hard work and talent that women have is not a magic trick, it is hours and hours of dedication and hard work – we all know this is not a facade but it is real talented women working hard in their careers. It is time to let women do there work and get the jobs and equal pay they deserve. Honestly, why are we still talking about this. It is time to move the legislation forward, I am certain many men out there would like to see this issue solved as well as the women out there. Let’s get this much needed legislation passed. We can set a deadline, and focus our collective power, as there are so many of us that know these laws are overdue, and should be moved forward. Let us do the right thing and get these much needed laws passed. We will all benefit from it. Think about it, it is the natural next step for business. It makes logical sense.

  3. Lacee Thomas

    It is great to see this topic being disucssed by high power leaders! I completely agree that quotas don’t solve anything and dislike to see those suggested. If only more people would realize that the higher diversity of the group the better chances of more success.