While Mitt Romney was on stage making three-ring binders socially relevant again, there were more than 600 movers and shakers in the financial services industry who missed the presidential debate last Tuesday to attend American Banker's gala event celebrating the most powerful women in banking and finance.
Binders were not on the agenda. But a dialogue about diversity candidates certainly was.
Politics aside, you would have been hard pressed to find anyone at the event who disagreed with the sentiment Romney (so awkwardly) expressed: to get more women in important roles, you need the decision makers to be looking at female candidates. And oftentimes for that to happen, you need to deliver the resumes of female candidates directly to the decision makers, who don't always have gender equity at the top of their mind when making their picks, and whose own awareness about the field of candidates is probably a lot more limited than you'd think.
If advancing to the C-suite was simply a matter of performing well and waiting for a tap on the shoulder from the chairman of the board, there would have been a female CEO by now at a top 10 bank. (It took until last May, when Beth Mooney became CEO at KeyCorp, for women to crack the top 20.)
Women can wait around another decade or two for more milestones to be reached, or they can follow the lead of the women's groups in Massachusetts that presented Romney and his staff with binders filled with resumes of women worth considering as governor appointees. It seems to me that the latter strategy would be far more efficient and effective.
This was precisely the point that my colleague Barbara Rehm made in her thought-provoking speech at the dinner, where she brought up the "Q" word – quotas – and defended the point nicely. (If you prefer, use the term "goals" in lieu of quotas; the implications are the same.) Her point was that plenty of boards say they want a diverse field of candidates to choose from when making important hires. But it's hard to come up with a significantly diverse field of significantly credible candidates unless someone is out there scouting for them, compiling their dossiers and in a position to advocate for them at the point when the decision gets made. Women do that for one another. Just ask Charlotte McLaughlin, head of PNC Capital Markets. As Rehm noted in her speech, McLaughlin was the first female on the board of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta, and she was committed to moving the needle on diversity at the organization's senior levels. As more women joined the board, that effort got even more momentum.
HSBC USA's Irene Dorner, No. 1 on this year's list of the 25 Most Powerful Women in Banking, got the ballroom buzzing when she talked about advocating for the promotion of women and other under-represented groups. As a bank CEO, she said, she sees that as one of her primary responsibilities. And she urged her peers to join her in pushing back on the status quo. "[D]on't accept the old rules," she said. "Speak up about what you want. Believe and encourage others to do the same and lead by example … Do not pretend to be role model if your success was based on mastering the old rules. And for goodness sake, do not be a queen bee and pull that ladder up behind you."
In other words, get out those binders. Collect those resumes. Punch three holes in the margins, stack ‘em up on the rings and deliver them directly to the people who need to see them.
Romney may have worded it a lot more awkwardly, but he has never expressed a more pro-female sentiment than when he talked about those "binders full of women." It's an astoundingly progressive strategy. Yes, I know, you could argue he could do one better by not needing any binders in the first place, by developing and maintaining a radar screen that is broad enough and inclusive enough that he would always have a short list of qualified female candidates at the ready. But until THAT'S the status quo, bring on the binders!
Heather Landy is Editor in Chief of American Banker Magazine.