Why We Need to Keep Celebrating Powerful Women

By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Earlier this week, American Banker published its lists of the Most Powerful Women in Banking and Finance, and Women to Watch. For a decade now, the magazine has celebrated the achievements of top women in the industry.

But as Heidi Miller, retired president of JP Morgan’s international business, suggests in her blistering article accompanying American Banker’s list, gender parity hasn’t come nearly as far in that decade as she’d hoped. She writes, “The value of an initiative like this one is that it creates visibility around an issue that still, after all these years, needs every bit of attention it can get.”

Miller points out that even though there are some women in senior management at financial services companies, there aren’t many of them. So many believe the industry to be a paragon of meritocracy – yet, she continues, simply taking a look at who’s in the c-suite should be enough to show anyone that it’s not.

Heather Landy, Editor in Chief of American Banker, agreed. “You would think – even hope – that ten years on, we would no longer need it. Women absolutely remain the exception to the rule when it comes to senior leadership in many industries, including financial services. Because of that, we absolutely do need to continue to publish rankings.”

Drawing attention to the few senior women who have made it to the top reminds us of the systemic challenges in getting there. It pushes us all to work to topple these barriers, and encourages senior women reach out a hand to younger generations climbing the ladder as well. Finally, it expands the vision of what a leader can look like for both women and men.

Changing the Leader Image

Landy said Most Powerful Women honorees frequently relate how important the list is. “The women on the list often were the barrier breakers. They had no role models of their own. Often, they tell us how important it is to show women what they can be, the role models they can be.”

She continued, “Irene Dorner, number one on our Most Powerful Women in Banking list this year, shared this idea that having become successful, she realized she was inadvertently working against the cause rather than for the cause.”

“Just because she made it, she didn’t want to make it appear that all women can make it,” Landy explained. Dorner, CEO and President of HSBC North America, is outspoken on the issue of institutional gender bias and wants us to be aware that the systemic challenges for women are real. Just becomes a few women are making it through, we can’t just assume that discrimination has somehow been “solved.”

Today, most blatant gender discrimination has given way to more subtle, invisible forms – like the suggestion that women are “opting out” of challenging careers to stay at home. More likely, women are pushed out because their companies are unwilling to recognize that the needs of women (and men) are changing. Landy explained, “It may be true that women are self-selecting to remove themselves from the game to raise families. But I suspect that oftentimes the decision is made easier because they don’t see a clear path to leadership, or because their boss is not understanding of family needs, or if work looks like a dead end because they’re being passed over for promotion again and again.”

If women recognize that the system isn’t working for them, they will leave the system. Unfortunately, that heavily drains the system of talented, educated women filled to the brim with institutional knowledge and training. It just doesn’t make sense for companies to push women out – yet they do, because systemic bias is difficult to recognize and difficult to change.

As Miller writes, “We need to rewire our thinking here and reject this excuse for the status quo.”

Changing the System

According to Landy, more and more people are recognizing the importance of female role models. Each year the magazine hosts a gala dinner to honor the women named on the list, she explained. “And each year, there are more and more people from outside the award who attend, like male CEOs. This signals to me that it’s being taken very seriously in the industry.”

Similarly, market forces may be converging to encourage the financial services to take women more seriously. While the discussion around the “end of men,” or the “man-cession” has been largely overblown and misleading – as Stephanie Coontz pointed out in her New York Times opinion piece this weekend – we can’t deny that women are taking charge of an increasing share of financial decisions.

That can only serve to make a case for more female leadership within the financial services, perhaps pushing a transformation toward equity that may otherwise have taken even longer.

Landy commented, “In the financial services there’s great attention to how this will affect things – like customer relationships, or whether single women or men are purchasing homes and becoming mortgage owners, or how to appreciate trends showing women driving more financial decisions. It inevitably has an impact on the entire industry.”

She added, “It’s truly going to make big changes.”

Hopefully, those changes will come sooner than later, driven by influential women and men at the top who believe in the value of creating an equal playing field.