Asked for the most impactful element of her rise from teller to the executive leadership ranks with Arvest Bank, Tanya James has a ready answer. She asked for it.
“For me, I’ve been very clear on communicating career goals. I call them special projects,” she said. “Ever since I was a teller, I’ve always had a special project, and it’s given me experience that I need for the next step.”
James, senior vice president, branch administration, said articulating a goal is the first step in achieving it, and a key step for women in business looking to advance.
“A woman has to take initiative and clearly state what her career goals are and do it in a way that comes from a good space and not being arrogant,” she said. “Until you really communicate what your ultimate goal is, your team can’t really help you and give you the special projects that you need to help gain experiences in those areas.”
Martie North, senior vice president and director of community development for Simmons Bank, goes a step further, saying many women look at opportunities differently than their male counterparts, with a perspective that hamstrings their advancement.
“There’s more intentionality today in companies trying to help people identify the steps necessary for them to accomplish their goals,” she said. “But … people have to speak up and let it be known that they have those interests to move from here, to here and this is the path, the career path that they desire.”
Both North and James acknowledge that mere boldness is not enough to level a playing field tilted against them as women, and women of color to boot. They readily admit without the investment of their mentors and supervisors, all the proclaiming in the world wouldn’t have moved their careers one inch. As it is, both took two decades to get where they are now.
And even as the industry itself moves toward greater diversity and parity, the status of women in the banking and financial services industry is still viewed through a cracked corporate lens, a schizophrenic perspective that acknowledges women for their valuable contributions while holding the key to the C-suite out of reach.
“There’s definitely areas, such as market leadership, where there still continues to be under representation across the state,” North said. “We just don’t see a lot of women as bank presidents. We don’t see a lot of women as commercial lenders. We don’t see a lot of women in the C-suite. So those are areas where, definitely, I would love to see more women ascend. I can’t speak to the reasons why that’s happening, but it would be wonderful to see more women in these positions.”
The banking industry has shown that it, too, has yet to formulate an effective formula to remedy the inequity that still exists between men and women. Statistics show while women have made strides landing leadership roles — 45 percent of first- and second-level banking managers nationwide are female, per the American Banking Association — they still regularly crack their heads on the glass ceiling.
Even the promise of higher profits has done little to change minds, policies and promotion ratios. As the website Bank on Women reports, research shows companies with sufficient female representation on the board enjoy an 84 percent return on sales, 60 percent return on invested capital and 46 percent return on capital. Yet, it hasn’t been enough to move most into executive leadership at the same rate as men.
In fact, in the February 2020 report, “Women in the Boardroom,” the American Bankers Association’s own research showed only 1.4 percent of women in S&P 500 finance companies, and just 4.3 percent of all women in banking were CEOs. And the majority of those who were led institutions with less than $1 billion in assets.
Even more telling, despite shareholder pressure to increase gender diversity at the executive level, only two women advanced to bank CEO in the five years between 2013 and 2018, per the ABA.
One contributing factor for this, says Bank On Women, is that women leave the industry much faster than men — in part, no doubt, to the inequities in advancement opportunities — providing fewer with the requisite job experience and readiness to step into leadership opportunities.
Socialization differences also come into play. The organization noted studies that show women need to be asked more than once before they seek a promotion, run for election or take on a new role, often because they trail men in the professional development that gives them the confidence to do so.
“I learned at a women’s leadership conference once that men can look at a job description and say, ‘You know what? I meet about 50 percent of this job description. I’m going to apply for it,’” North said. “Women, on the other hand, will look at it and say, ‘I am not 100 percent in line with this job description, so I’m not going to apply for it.’
“I don’t know how often in our pursuit of being perfect that we are limiting our own opportunities, but go for it. To all of that, I say go for it.”
Experts are sharply divided on whether attitudes among younger workers — often portrayed as more progressive on matters of gender and wage equality — are in fact the sole answer to the problem. As Business Insider noted a couple of years ago, even as millennials have taken over the workplace and narrowed the pay gap, men’s wages grew faster than women’s in all regions of the country except the West Coast and in all eight industry sectors studied. This even includes education and health care, where the percentage of women in the workforce is highest.
Still, that doesn’t minimize the case-by-case evidence of how progress can be made when it comes to gender equity in the workplace, especially in younger companies that don’t have to paddle against years of entrenched attitudes and practices.
Tori Bogner joined Fayetteville-based Signature Bank as vice president and marketing director just two years ago. She said the institution’s relatively short tenure has helped it structure itself in a way that promotes diversity at all levels.
“Something I find unique about Signature is, we’re not that old of a bank. We were founded in 2005,” she said. “I don’t mean to call anyone out by saying this, but I grew up in a rural side of the state where everything’s kind of the good ol’ boy network. If you’ve got a bank that’s founded 100 years ago, there’s a high likelihood that those great-grandsons are still part of the leadership of the organization.
“At Signature, we’re only 16 years old, and there were a lot of women involved in the very beginning of our organization. It’s been a natural progression for everyone who’s been involved since the beginning to rise and grow into those leadership positions, whether they’re male or female.”
Bogner said Signature’s focus on diversity and gender equity is evident as a matter of course in formalized career mapping and mentorship opportunities for employees, things that previous generations often didn’t have. These are not only effective in maintaining a level playing field come promotion time, she added, but show a keen understanding of what attracts and retains modern female employees, who increasingly expect to move up, or they’ll move on.
“I had the pleasure of serving as only the ninth or 10th female president in the 90-year history of student government at the University of Arkansas, and I only graduated college nine years ago,” Bogner said. “I came out of a pretty significant leadership role as a female, and I never even considered that my gender would hold me back in the workplace as I moved forward and went to work.
“But it’s interesting; college doesn’t teach you how the workplace really functions. There was a situation where I was passed over for a particular job opening because, ‘It wasn’t the right fit for a female.’ It was a department full of other females, and they thought that they needed a male to balance it out. And I’m lucky; that’s the one and only time that’s happened, and that hasn’t been a significant detraction in my career.”
Bogner said this early lesson made her more aware of gender bias, including implied bias that can creep into even the best work environment. She said companies’ ability to bring such attitudes out in the open will go farthest toward addressing the challenge of making workplace opportunities equal for all.
“Overall, people are recognizing that women expect to have whatever role they deserve, based on their work history and proven performance,” she said. “That being said, there’s value in having some of those real conversations about the ‘things that people don’t say.’ Even if they’re not saying it, they’re thinking it.
“When it comes to topics about image and how you’re portrayed and what people are thinking when they’re looking at you, even though that’s not something that’s supposed to be happening anymore, it does. It still does, and it’s worth talking about the differences in how different genders look at different things and how different generations consider different things.”