Browse by Type

Blog Post |

One Step in Winning the War for Talent: Help Create a World Where Little Girls Want to Become Women

My daughter MacKenzie will be seven in October. As our only child, each year has brought unexpected challenges and pleasant surprises. In her sixth year, she’s asked tough questions and started to really demonstrate the person she’s becoming. She is a very social creature and has never met a stranger. She has a huge heart and feels things deeply. She’s passionate about science, math, singing and the beach.

  • Tansley Sterns Chief People and Strategy Officer at Canvas Credit Union

Several times in the last few months she’s told me something that nearly stopped my heart. She’s said, “Mommy, I don’t want to be a girl.” The first time she said it, I made the mistake of immediately giving her all the reasons that she’s wrong. I told her being a woman is an honor. I reminded her of the all the great women in her life like her grandmothers, her aunts and her teachers. As with most lectures, she quickly moved on to something else and stopped listening.

The next time she said it, I was smarter and asked, “Why honey? What are you worried about?” She told me that it was going to hurt to have a baby. She said, “It isn’t fair that I have to wear a shirt and boys don’t.” What struck me was that at this very early age, she’s already identifying some of the gaps that remain for women. 

The challenges are real 

The recent Susan Chira New York Times piece “Why Women Aren’t C.E.O.s, According to Women Who Almost Were” highlighted, “More than 40 years after women began pouring into the workplace, only a handful have made it all the way to the top of corporate America. The percentage of chief executives of Fortune 500 companies who are women just passed 6 percent, creeping up (and occasionally dropping back) at a glacial pace.”

Specific to credit unions, in “Women in Leadership: Obstacles and Opportunities,” (Thomas-Hunt and Nagpal, 2014) Filene Research Institute identified that, “on the one hand, credit unions in the United States have a higher percentage of female CEOs than other institutions. On the other, most of those leaders serve at credit unions smaller than $50 million (M). In the $100M–$500M tier, about one out of five CEOs is a woman. One in eight CEOs of credit unions larger than $500M is a woman.”

I’ve personally experienced what Chira’s article describes: “The impact of gender is hard to pin down decisively. But after years of biting their tongues, believing their ranks would swell if they simply worked hard, many senior women in business are concluding that the barriers are more deeply rooted and persistent than they wanted to believe.”

The most common manifestation occurs when I’m on the road or describing my work and the amount of travel I do. People will ask, “How do you do this? It must be so hard on your family for you to travel this much. Your husband must be a saint.” Certainly, my husband has made a commitment to help our family thrive at home while I’m on the road. There are challenges for anyone that travels for work, no matter the gender. What we hope is that MacKenzie sees her working mom committed to a career and movement that she believes in deeply and that someday she can commit her life to something that brings her joy where she can create significant impact.

We can take action to make a difference 

As I’ve thought about MacKenzie’s comments and desires to “not be a girl,” I’ve come to believe that the best thing I can do is take action. I can work to shift her perspective and the perspective of other young women as they grow and learn about the possibilities for their futures. I can work with others to continue to paint a picture of just how much women can do. All of us can play a role in painting this picture. Please join me by putting these five ideas into practice from Filene Research Institute’s report, “Five Challenges: Enhancing Women’s Leadership in Credit Unions" (Thomas-Hunt, 2015):

  1. Help build the pipeline of women. According to the report, “credit unions should consider whether they are trying hard enough to recruit women with functional backgrounds and degrees that will propel them into the highest levels of the organization. Additionally, they should consider whether men and women with similar credentials are being sorted into different functions upon entering the credit union.” How might your organization build systemic processes to ensure your funnel of talent includes all the best options amongst both genders?
  2. Consider leadership style and selection. The report finds that, “Women are a bit more likely to set objectives in isolation and less likely to seek input from subordinates, suggesting that women may engage in more authoritarian styles.” Is an authoritarian leadership style that is “a bit more likely to set objectives in isolation and less likely to seek input from subordinates,” simply more effective or can the organization flag this possibility to “get women to consider how their leadership style is perceived?”
  3. Evaluate the credit union climate. The study revealed that men and women employees have different perceptions of collaboration and signals for the importance of roles along gender lines depending upon the gender of the CEO. “Having a female CEO significantly improves the way women experience their credit union. Nevertheless, those same benefits do not translate to men. And in many instances having a female CEO diminishes men’s comfort within their credit union.” Invite your organization to have open dialogue about the impact of the gender of leaders on team members and how that is translating into perception of opportunities across gender lines.
  4. Create sponsor and mentorship opportunities. The study demonstrated that, “building mentoring and sponsorship relationships in order to reach the top of the organization has been found to be beneficial for both men and women. Mentors counsel and advise on professional and life decisions. Sponsors, however, move beyond advising and advocate for individuals, often increasing individuals’ visibility within the organization and actively creating career opportunities.” Is your credit union being purposeful in your approach to ensuring there is a hand helping to pull up your best and brightest talent?
  5. Develop systems that support family issues. Many of us who juggle a full work life and a full family life wonder if any of us can really have it all? The report highlights, “for high-level managers or board members, the percentage of men who have children remains at 59% but the percentage of female high-level managers with children drops to 41%. This divide, in particular, suggests that high-level leadership coupled with motherhood may be less tenable than high-level leadership and fatherhood.” What structures and options can your credit union develop to ensure your talent has the balance that they choose to have regardless of their gender?

Doing good business and attracting the best and brightest

Regardless of our own personal opinions about women in leadership, solving these challenges makes good business sense. According to “Women in Leadership: Obstacles and Opportunities,” “In the United States alone, women control over 50% of private wealth and head one-third of households. Globally, women generate 65% of consumer discretionary spending, but the chasm between women’s presence in the global economy and their representation in leadership roles within corporations, especially financial institutions, is notable. Many organizations have become concerned that if their leadership team and employee base do not reflect women’s presence in the global economy, opportunities to engage women as clients, customers, members, and shareholders will disappear.”

My dream as a mom is that credit unions and other businesses will take action to help address these challenges. That the number of women in leadership roles will grow and someday MacKenzie will be telling me just how proud she is to be a woman. The research I cited above summarized it well, “those credit unions that are most serious about fully leveraging their entire pool of existing talent and attracting the best and brightest future leaders will seek to understand what is standing in their way.”

One more action you and your credit union team can take right now is to join Filene and other like-minded credit union peers in a dialogue about attracting and retaining the best talent possible for the credit union movement. We invite you to our "America's Got Talent: Attracting it is the Challenge" Research Colloquium in Austin, TX on Sept. 14. This event is free for Filene members and the greatest benefit will be walking away with fresh ideas and a renewed spirit for working to solve common challenges for this industry, and for gender equality in our leadership ranks.