Banks capitalize on women

The financial sector realizes there is a business case to be made for shattering the glass ceiling.

Hillary Clinton, on losing the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama, famously said, "There are now 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling," bringing home the reality there is still a glass ceiling for North American women trying to climb the corporate ladder, albeit in some sectors, particularly finance, it is easier to do so.

That reality was all too readily confirmed with the release last month of the 2008 Catalyst Census of Women Corporate Officers and Top Earners of the FP 500. While the number of women corporate officers in Canada rose to 16.9%, one-third of FP 500 companies had no female executives.

Another recent study, the Rosenzweig Report on Women at the Top Levels of Corporate Canada, discovered there are 36 women in C-suites across Canada, including five chief executive officers. On a percentage basis, that's about 7.2%, which means men still hold 92.8% of the highest paid positions in Canada's largest public companies. More than two-thirds (69%) of Canada's biggest public companies do not have women executives at the top paid ranks.

Still, those 36 women represent a 24% jump from last year.

"On the one hand we were happy to see the numbers have gone up steadily," says Jay Rosenzweig, managing partner of senior executive search firm Rosenzweig & Company.

"This is our fourth study and we are up 60% from where we started; that's the good news. The bad news is the number is far too low. We believe we can do better," he says.

Of course some areas are doing better. While women were represented in top levels in all industries, finance, particularly the banks are leading the charge. Of the five largest Canadian banks, four made the Rosenzweig list: Royal Bank of Canada, Toronto Dominion Bank, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and Bank of Montreal.

"To their credit, [banks] capitalized on an opportunity to improve on their business," Mr. Rosenzweig says. "They realized the more you invest in diversity the greater your return will be. Diversity spurs creativity in thinking, furthers debate and out of debate comes better results."

The American Management Association released a study demonstrating that diversity in ethnicity, age and gender among senior management in 1,000 U. S. companies was linked to better corporate performance. A report from Rutgers University and Iowa State University looked at 112 large U. S. companies for five years in the 1990s and found diversity on corporate boards was linked with better organizational performance.

And a Catalyst survey of Fortune 500 companies found that return on equity was 35% higher for those companies with the greatest gender diversity in the top ranks, compared with those with the fewest female executives.

"The banks realize there is a business case being made to getting women into those top positions," says Sue Calhoun, president of the Canadian Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs, adding, "the more companies start to realize this, the more they will start to be proactive in putting women into those positions."

According to the Prime Minister's Task Force on Women Entrepreneurs, for the past 15 years, women in Canada have started businesses at twice the rate of men.

"If you think about it, women starting their own businesses need the banks. I would suspect that that is having a major impact on their banks, in order to better serve them," Ms. Calhoun says.

"At the same time, a great percentage of the banks' workforce is women. Look around. They are seemingly able to attract all these women, now they need to help them work their way up. It is almost the perfect microcosm for shaping a new day for women in the executive suite."

Yasmin Meralli, vice-president for diversity and workplace equity at BMO Financial Group in Toronto, has experienced this first hand. Born in Tanzania, she has had a diverse career that began with a degree in microbiology, and included working at a railway and the largest electricity company in the England, and articling with a Chartered Accountancy firm.

"In banking, there has been a deliberate focus to help women come up the ranks," Ms. Meralli says. "There was also an early recognition of the linkage between diversity and performance."

In fact, BMO had its first woman board member in 1967 -- not too long before that, women who worked in banks were expected to leave their jobs when they got married. In the 1980s, BMO undertook a task force to bust some myths about women in the workforce and ended up proving women perform as well if not better than men and had longer tenure with the bank than men. These discoveries led to policies that created a workplace where men and women could do their best work.

Those policies still in place today include flexible work arrangements; formal and informal mentoring and networking opportunities; and looking for ways to give future leaders that all-important line experience that leads to the C-suite.

"This is driven from the top," Ms. Meralli says. "Embracing diversity is built into the way we work as a company. Our performance tracker includes diversity metrics."

Her advice to other industries is to step up: "This will not just happen. If you as a company decide this is important then you have to make it happen."

That goes for women, too. "We need to make sure we are vocalizing what we want, thinking through what we want and being aggressive about it. There is a real opportunity for women to work toward change and in getting more organizations working toward change," Ms. Meralli says.