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.