Muriel Siebert got a call from a friend weeks after the Dodd-Frank Act finally passed. It was how Siebert found out about a provision that requires each of the regulatory agencies to create an Office of Minority and Women Inclusion which she considers to be of great significance.
"I was surprised it had not been talked about and it still hasn't," says Siebert, the first woman to get a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. "I did not know it was in the bill."
Though much depends on how these new offices execute their mission, Siebert is hopeful about the potential impact. The intent is to increase the hiring of women and minorities at the agencies and the financial institutions they regulate. Another goal is to promote contracting opportunities for firms owned by women and minorities.
All federal financial regulatorsincluding the Treasury Department, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the National Credit Union Administration, and each Federal Reserve Bank-must establish such offices by January.
The women in our rankings are split in their opinions about the provision. Of the 25 who anonymously answered a survey question on the topic, nine object to the meddling. Some cite a suffocating compliance burden or a growing government bureaucracy.
Others are offended by the perception that women need any extra help to get ahead, and even expect the industry-and women in itto be harmed. "Women in leadership would become a 'have to' versus 'it's just the right thing to do,'" says one.
"I feel this hurts the advancement of women and minorities by giving an appearance that the issue has to be mandated," says another. "Women can stand on their own accomplishments and merits."
But Siebert is among the women who see it differently. She heads a brokerage firm bearing her name and is well known in the world of finance. Yet she says breaking into the "boys' club" remains a challenge. "I had a terrible time and I still do."
Siebert feels certain other women share her frustration, particularly on Wall Street. And she believes the new offices can only help. "I'll tell you one thing: It may make it possible for me to get into more deals," she says.
Rep. Maxine Waters championed the provision after a recent studyfrom the Government Accountability Office found that the percentage of women and minorities holding senior management positions at financial institutions had not changed substantially between 1993 and 2008. The California Democrat also says the Troubled Asset Relief Program failed to offer enough contracting opportunities to businesses owned by women and minorities.
The law mandates that the new offices at the federal agencies create guidelines for hiring and contracting and monitor the results. Though the offices have no enforcement power, trade groups are leery.They question the need for such an initiative when companies in all industries must comply with current federal diversity laws anyway. Singling out the financial industry for extra scrutiny also threatens to add more of a compliance burden.
But NCUA chairman Deborah Matz welcomes her new responsibility.
"Stronger measures to promote greater diversity in the workforcein both public and private sectorsare long overdue," Matz says.
Her agency intends to develop policies for itself and monitor the diversity practices at all federal credit unions.
She says its policies also would be used as a yardstick for contractors and subcontractors who do business with the agency.
Two of the participants in our survey share Matz's perspective. They say the added attention to diversity issues should prove beneficial. Another four agree that the initiative might help if done right.
But six women expect the new offices to have no impact. Three others are unsure about what the effect might be, and one has yet to form an opinion.
"I think we have made a lot of progress with gender inclusion since I first started working," says one who is unsure. Yet too few females are chief executives and directors, and maybe quotas are needed to help at that level, she says.
She finds the idea distasteful, though. "Quotas for the sake of having the right numbers are not helpful to anyone, and I do not believe women want to be given opportunities or put in positions just because of their gender."