Numerous studies have shown that diverse companies perform better than homogeneous ones. Therefore the dearth of women executives in banking is a problem not just for women but for the industry as a whole.
But while gender bias is real, I'm convinced that women can lessen its impact on our careers — at least to some degree. We can choose to cultivate our own success.
Over the course of my career, I have embraced three principles that helped me to perform effectively, overcome obstacles and project strength in an industry that is still run primarily by men.
First, life isn't always fair. My mom died when I was nine. Soon after, it became my job to cook and clean for my dad and brother simply because I was the girl. Those early experiences, and so many that followed, reinforced my growing awareness of gender inequality. Over and over, I saw that more doors opened for men. I owe a debt of gratitude to the male mentor who sat me down as a young public accountant and matter-of-factly told me to stop thinking that life would ever be fair. Rather, he said, think about how to deal with the fact that it's not.
This mentor's words resonated for me. I was able to let go of frustrations and attitudes that have become significant barriers for many women, even some of my most accomplished colleagues. Railing against a glass ceiling does little to break it, and a chip on one's shoulder can be heavy and useless baggage. Instead, I began to shift my focus to what I could do in order to help myself win on an uneven playing field: ask for help and feedback; always learn and grow, especially in areas outside my own; and speak up. I worked on these traits until they became ingrained.
Second, men and women behave differently. Much research — not to mention the everyday experience of both women and men — affirms these differences. In financial services, 88% of executive-level jobs are held by men. Accepting this reality, I decided to try to understand the opinions and behaviors of the male executives at my various places of employment so that I could succeed in their world.
Understanding the rules of the road within each workplace has helped me to make choices in my personal conduct. For example, I've discovered that many women apologize for everything while men rarely do. Women frequently add qualifiers as they begin to speak in meetings: "I have a question," or "Maybe it's just me." Men just ask the question or make the statement. Understanding these differences, I can choose which rules to accept and do so deliberately from a position of strength.
Lastly, and most importantly, viewing a situation through a different lens can often present a fresh perspective. I can control how I perceive circumstances and how I will respond, thereby changing the experience itself.
For example, during casual conversations, co-workers may ask me about family or travel while consulting my male colleagues on the yield curve. Though I'm sure this tendency reflects gendered assumptions about my comfort zone rather than a desire to intentionally insult me, there was a time that I would bristle nonetheless. By changing my lens, I've come to see these personal exchanges as valuable opportunities to find common ground and build relationships that I can leverage in other ways.
This principle is about power and choice. Just as I can choose which rules to accept in the C-suite, I can determine the lens through which I view my next meeting, assignment, and entire career path.
It's harder for women to succeed in the workplace, and that's not fair. But let's not complain too much. Women have so much to offer to our financial institutions, and progress is happening every day — largely thanks to the pioneers and advocates working to level the playing field once and for all. While women continue to fight for workplace equality, we should also focus on our individual careers, the opportunities we can create, and the difference we can make.
Kristina K. Williams is chief operating officer at the Federal Home Loan Bank of Pittsburgh.