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.

8 Responses

  1. Avatar
    Monica Duggal

    Legislation would help create that much needed equal playing field. How do we get this much needed legislation started?

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    The point about women not being able to see a clear path to leadership is interesting. Many work environments claim they have established an even playing field when in reality it is very difficult for the career-minded woman who is juggling her family to see how exactly she will get there.

    Would it be fair to say that men are perpetually to blame for “hording” the leadership roles and creating a sort of glass ceiling, or is it also fair to say that women have accepted a little too much ‘status quo’ in the past decade to make the necessary changes? Thoughts?

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    marie wilson

    What really has changed is shown in this article where very successful women like Heidi Miller and Irene Dorner talk about their disappointment that we have come so little distance, and don’t want the success of the few to make it appear to be an issue that is just about the “top” woman as “performer” but about the systems and structure that make it so difficult for more women to make it to the top.

  4. Avatar
    Melissa Anderson

    Thanks for your comment, Marie. In the past year or two, I’ve definitely noticed a growing interest in the senior women I’ve interviewed to point out that the system is unfair. I think it’s great that these women are willing to point out disparities. It takes a lot of courage to speak out against the system even if you’ve had a very successful career.

    To that point, Brett, I don’t think it’s appropriate to ascribe blame to either men or women. The status quo is what it is, and people operate within it to the best of their ability. The problem lies with people who recognize that the system is unfair and don’t do anything to change it, or even fight to keep it in place. That’s why it’s so critical to have senior, influential women (and men) speaking out on this topic.

    Monica, I don’t think we’re likely to see any legislation on this topic, in the US at least. In fact, if you watched the presidential debate yesterday, you’ll remember that the word “women” wasn’t uttered once by either candidate all night long. Fortunately we have some bold people (women and men) pushing for cultural change within organizations. The next steps are getting the word out, generating buy-in, moving people to recognize their own biases and behaviors, and then creating actionable change.

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    To me, the challenges that women face are subtle and the result of behaviors that are taught in our society at the toddler age. It is about increasing awareness of these deeply rooted–and many times subconscious–judgments and assumptions across both genders. I have only just begun to realize the depth of these subleties now that my son is almost 3.

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    Having spent thirty years in active support of the kind of call you issue here, Melissa, I agree with your post. But having spent recent days in conversations with parents of twenty year old sons, and being one such myself, there is no doubt in my mind it is time to add a new song to our repertoire. It is young men who are at risk today, not young women.

    A energetic, progressive professional couple, both active proponents of women’s advancement for many years, told me how they have watched the young female partners of their late 20s sons move with focus and confidence into their careers, while their sons dithered and struggled with uncertainty about careers and even whether to stay in school. This anecdote, is typical, not exceptional. You can see it in the numbers: Most colleges and professional schools have a significantly higher proportion of young women than young men.

    Young men today do not know who they are, what their real skills are (other than computer games, which are a significant element in the mix of malaise), what they want to do, or how to harness their energies to move their lives forward. It is tempting to call them lazy, spoiled, directionless, and self-absorbed, all true to a certain extent. But those are secondary aspects, I have no doubt, symptoms of a larger root cause which includes failure of parents and society to provide them with structures, empathy, and mentoring to find their way.

    My commitment now is to begin doing what we have for a generation sought to do on behalf of young women: to step forward and be their fearless advocates, even at the cost of making people uncomfortable. This is not at the expense of women’s advancement; I still support the call you make here. But we cannot advance as a society if we abandon our young men, which, to a substantial extent (and not merely through our efforts to advance young women, but also due to the changing nature of professions, technology, family patterns, etc.).

    My invitation: bring the needs of young men actively into your advocacy. I am not personally clear what that means. Must we, for example, stop making appeals only on behalf of a given group? On this I have an open mind. What I know for sure is that young men need to hear firm, articulate advocacy on their behalf, expressed with the same passion and dedication which young women have heard on their behalf from their progressive elders for a generation now.

  7. Avatar

    I have enjoyed reading all of the comments.
    I was in Congress and I was in the Illinois Legislature. In fact I was the first woman to ever serve as Senate Majority Leader.
    Ironically I lost my seat in Congress in 2010 when we lost more seats than ever.
    We now have fewer women in Congress since the 1970’s. Lets hope this November we will elect more women.

    I have written a book about my years in politics called Playing Ball With The Big Boys.
    I now consult, coach and speak on how we as women must help each other and stand up for ourselves and learn how to “Play Ball”

    I also help women get “sponsors” versus “mentors”. Women still need help getting the tope jobs Men help men. But for some reason women don’t help women. Once a woman gets one of those coveted top spots she no longer wants to be seen as helping women. That is wrong. We have to help each other . There is room at the tope for us all.

    My mission since leaving Congress is to help other women find their way to whatever it is they want.