Women Are Finding Slow But Steady Progress in Finance

Female executives are seeing more positive shifts in their quest for full equality.

After coming to Dallas early in her banking career, Carla Brooks got a surprise at a private club atop a downtown skyscraper, where a man had invited her for a business lunch. “We had to go to a separate dining room where women were allowed,” the Midwest native says of that late 1970s episode. “The main dining room was part of the men’s section.” Things have changed for women executives like Brooks, who today manages private equity funds’ investments in banks for Dallas-based Commerce Street Investment Management.

Where finding women in the boss’ office was once scarce, Elaine Agather, who helms both the 12,000-employee North Texas operation for JPMorgan Chase and the 200-employee southern region of its private bank, says she not only has a female boss, but sees women running the company’s consumer bank and credit card business.

“It’s not been directed from above,” Agather says about women’s high-level roles at Chase. “It’s because we have received opportunities and the support to be successful here.”
Despite decades of diversity efforts, management and executive roles in banking and finance remain male-dominated, an issue that crosses industries and job duties. In 2015, women made up 2.8 percent of CEOs in 60 finance and insurance companies in the S&P 500, according to Catalyst, a New York-based research and advocacy nonprofit.

Those same companies’ total employee base was 52.5 percent female, with each successive layer above more male-dominated, Catalyst data show. “Men make the decisions on promotions, and they promote the people they are most comfortable spending time with,” says Melanie Shaffer, who recruits accounting and finance executives at CFO Suite, a Dallas consulting and staffing firm. Electronic modes of communication like email can impede face-to-face contact, which lower-level employees need in large organizations to win over higher-ups. And finance-related jobs increasingly have regulatory restrictions on what staffers can say to customers and co-workers alike–something that complicates life for advancement-minded women and men, experts say.

Ironically, women’s opportunities to land high-level finance jobs have never been better, particularly at public companies, experts say. The demands of those gigs, including growing legal and regulatory risks, have left many would-be candidates gun-shy, according to Shaffer, a partner at CFO Suite. “So that has created high demand for top high-level finance talent,” she says. “It’s opened doors.”

Different times, different work lives

As a whole, women executives in North Texas finance report encountering few obstacles overtly tied to their gender. Businessmen did call Brooks “honey” and “sweetie” in her early Dallas years, something she views as a term of endearment reflecting their upbringing. “When I was interviewing for jobs, I don’t ever remember feeling excluded” for gender-related reasons, Brooks says.

Women executives in North Texas finance report encountering few obstacles overtly tied to their gender.

Dori Abendschein, the recently named finance chief at Dallas-based Essilor Americas, says she’s seen “rapid advancement” in the lot of female executives over the past five years. She first noticed the trend in the last decade. “It’s not enough to acquire talent,” says Abendschein, whose employer is a unit of Essilor International, a French maker and distributor of eyeglasses and contact lenses. “You must create senior leadership positions with that diverse mindset. That’s what’s changed–recognizing the need to do that.” Essilor is recruiting in engineering and finance at universities, aiming to bring in women and people of color as interns. More companies are spurring affinity groups, helping young employees build social support internally with peers, for demographic slices of their workforces like African-Americans and gays and lesbians, she says. One of Abendschein’s previous employers, Schneider-Electric, is adding natives of Canada, the U.S., and Mexico to its C-suite to ensure customers in those markets have a voice, she says. “It’s targeted around geographic areas where [the companies] need talent, a concentrated effort to get to the talent pool,” Abendschein says. But while work life has improved immeasurably for women in finance, certain realities of executive life can act as barriers at even the most diversity-minded companies.

Will she stay?

One is simply men’s perception of women in the workplace. At one time, male executives may have viewed women as somehow more emotional and less stable. Though that may persist in some quarters, a more common question in today’s workplace is whether a given woman will forgo career for family life. “In previous large companies I worked for, there was more reluctance for management to make bets on women or non-traditional candidates, particularly in male-dominated industries,” says Renee Hornbaker, executive vice president and chief financial officer at Dallas-based Stream Energy, an upstart Dallas-based supplier of power, gas, and connectivity service. “It is often viewed as a riskier decision.” Technology helps women in this regard. Where finance executives once had to be behind their desks to work, cell phones allow parents to extinguish corporate fires while picking kids up from school. “I think a lot of focus in coming years will be around how we allow or expect people to work, as well as benefits,” says Susan Powell, a Dallas-based audit partner at accounting firm Whitley Penn. “Being able to work from home can be a huge time saver, especially the bigger and more congested our city gets.”

But technology improvements can’t eliminate intrusions on family time that come with high-level finance jobs. In public accounting, “the bigger firms require a ton of hours, whereas mid-sized firms tend to have a better work-life balance,” Powell says.

A personal choice

Ultimately, women who aspire to high-level finance jobs must decide what they can tolerate to achieve their goals. That may help clarify which gig is most appropriate. In addition to working on a new professional designation, Naima Judge coaches her son’s basketball team, does volunteer work, and helps her husband with his business. “I don’t have a lot of time to allow work to overflow into the personal. I try to be as efficient with my time at work as possible,” says Judge, Dallas-based senior vice president and senior portfolio manager at U.S. Trust and Bank of America Private Wealth Management. To swim in mostly-male executive waters, Judge works to exude confidence–something that doesn’t always come naturally. “As a portfolio manager in a big organization like this and a woman of color, it takes it to an entirely different level,” she says.
Women do themselves a favor by accepting the reality that trade-offs are a part of juggling busy careers and home life, experts say. “In today’s business world, I’m probably more about achieving work-life integration than work-life balance,” says Suzanne Kriscunas, Dallas-based managing partner, fund manager at The Riverside Co., a private equity concern. Flexibility from both executives and their employers helps in that regard, Kriscunas says. “A corporate culture built on respect is paramount.”

And arguably the most helpful company insight is transparency. Megan Belknap, finance chief at Carrollton-based Lori’s Gifts, says she no longer tells up-and-comers they can “have it all. There were times when I gave everything to my company, missing big chunks of my children’s lives and neglecting my husband,” says Belknap, whose employer runs 340-plus hospital gift shops nationwide. “And then there were times when important work deadlines were missed because I took off for sick kids and school parties.” Businesses benefit by being flexible with outstanding employees, male and female alike, she says. “They will be extremely thankful and work that much harder for the company.”

Jeff Bounds is a freelance business writer in Garland.


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