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Diversity and inclusion is a men’s issue, too

Reflecting on my career as I retire after three decades in banking, I have come to see firsthand the crucial role that male leaders can play in women’s progress in the workplace.

I graduated from college in 1976 with a degree in business administration. I made the choice because my mother — who felt trapped in marriage due to few options to support herself and her daughters because she had not completed her degree — told me if I chose to work, I could always get a good job with a business degree.

It was not an inspired choice of educational focus, but one motivated by avoidance of my mother’s unhappiness due to her life choices. In those days, I was always one of only a few women in my business classes — it didn’t feel odd because it was what I had anticipated. While professors were encouraging due to my academic performance, they never used the “career” word with me — only the “job” word — unlike with my male peers.

Upon graduation, I was hired for the management training program of a large national department store chain — filling a quota of three women in a class of 25. There, I encountered my first mentor and sponsor, a high-ranking manager.

Ron taught me, among other career-long lessons, how diversity and inclusion is a men’s issue. When I asked him why he was so different from other men, he told me, “It isn’t just because I have daughters. It is because I recognize that I have the power — men have the power. And if we don’t use it to promote all great talent, we are being short-sighted.”

Up until then, the only people I heard talking (whispering, actually, in those days) about opportunities for women in leadership were other women. Ron sponsored me by using his social capital and credibility to advocate for me. I continued to be promoted to larger roles with more visibility and responsibility.

Later, after a career change, I encountered another male leader who uses the power his position affords to champion diversity and inclusion — Zions Bank President and Chief Executive Scott Anderson. Without Scott’s sponsorship, I have no doubt I would not have ended my career as a member of Zions Bancorp.’s executive management committee, helping to run our nearly $70 billion-asset company.

See the 2018 Most Powerful Women rankings:

The Most Powerful Women in Banking
Women to Watch
The Most Powerful Women in Finance

Anne Doyle, author of “Powering Up: How America’s Women Achievers Become Leaders” interviewed Scott for her upcoming book focused on male leaders who champion women’s success. In her interview, Anne asked Scott multiple times and in many different ways, “Why?” Scott kept answering, “My workforce is more than 50% women — why would I ignore all that talent?” In addition, Scott ensures all his internal advisory boards are half women and half men, as he does with the community boards he chairs.

Likewise, Harris Simmons, Zions Bancorp.’s chairman and CEO, has been a keen supporter of women’s career development. In my early days, I shared candidly some of the challenges I encountered as one of the only women executives in banking in Utah, not just within our bank.

I was often interrupted when speaking. I was ignored when making a point in a meeting. Sometimes, I was not even invited to meetings someone in my role would be expected to attend. Harris encouraged me to confront those bad behaviors and assured me what mattered most to him was not gender, but performance. He told me, “When I critique the financial performance of your division, I do not see pink ink.” It’s an important message for anyone who simply wants to earn opportunities based on performance and not be excluded due to something as biased as gender. It also gave me more confidence as I developed my own leadership style of honesty, directness and service to others along with my passion for mentoring and sponsoring great young women and men.

Recently I attended a roundtable with other retail banking executives from across our industry. Although the group is quite diverse, many of the women members were unable to attend, so it was a mostly male group. I was again reminded that diversity and inclusion is a male issue when we got to an agenda item on the #MeToo movement. My jaw dropped when I realized it was the men in the room who led the discussion.

One male peer said, “We still hold the power in our industry because we are the majority of the CEOs. That means we make the majority of the senior- and executive-level hires. We set the tone for everything in our banks.”

Another male executive promised, “I will never again ignore an off-color joke or a comment about a woman being ‘too abrasive’ when all she is doing is saying exactly what a man would have said, but in a voice that is a higher octave. I will never allow a woman to be interrupted by a man who would never think to interrupt another man.” I admit to tearing up.

But I also admit to my concern that the #MeToo movement becomes an excuse, even by well-meaning men, to avoid mentoring women for fear of the risk of being wrongly accused of impropriety. My career has benefited enormously from the mentoring and sponsorship of great male leaders, all of whom have also been great “gentlemen.” I wish the same opportunity for all women, but that cannot happen if men avoid women in the workplace.

Women are not making the progress in leadership positions that is reasonable to have expected after decades in this conversation. When men retract their mentoring, even maintaining our current numbers is impossible.

The lessons my male mentors imparted helped propel my success as a leader in our industry. I implore all male leaders to share their gifts with the next generation of leaders, many of whom will be women. Don’t ignore over 50% of the talent in our industry for any reason.

Whether you call it “power” or “influence,” men in our industry have the majority of “it.” That is why men must own diversity and inclusion — and follow the examples of those who already do.

LeeAnne Linderman, a longtime Zions executive who retired in August, frequently appeared in our Most Powerful Women rankings, most recently in 2016 on the Women to Watch list . Her BankThink post is part of a series that also features Kathryn Petralia, the chief operating officer and co-founder of Kabbage; H. Rodgin Cohen, senior chairman at the law firm Sullivan & Cromwell; Keith Mestrich, the CEO of Amalgamated Bank; and Bob Jones, the CEO of Old National Bank.

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