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Climbing the Corporate Ladder

This feature originally appeared in the May issue of MReport.

Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to Congress, once said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” Diverse candidates are not just bringing the folding chair—they are setting up a picnic at the boardroom table—with no intentions to leave. However, the road to diversity, inclusion, and representation has rarely been easily traversed. Executives from Eagle Home Mortgage, Mr. Cooper Group, and more spoke to MReport about the challenges they’ve faced, the success stories that resulted, and their experiences climbing the corporate ladder in today’s mortgage and housing industries.


Taking Notice

A recent hearing by the House Financial Services Committee found that 58% of banking institutions were white in 2018—lower than the national average of 63%. While females make up 51% of the industry, the disparity is apparent in the boardroom—at the senior level, employees are 71% male and 81% white. 

Maxine Waters (D-California), Chairwoman of the Financial Services Committee, called January’s hearing on diversity and inclusion amongst the nation’s largest banks “historic and groundbreaking.” 

“I believe we must mirror the world we want to live in … when representation and equity is an overarching priority in the banking industry, we can develop banks that out-innovate and outperform others and continue to move the needle within the industry,” said Congresswoman Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) during the hearing. 

Dana Dillard, EVP of Corporate Social Responsibility for Mr. Cooper Group, told MReport that while a workforce may be diverse, the turnover and opportunities among senior positions are limited, and creating change can be a challenge. 

“There are ways to help increase diversity for these leadership roles. One way is as simple as posting open leadership positions to bring more awareness to these opportunities, and ideally a more diverse pool of candidates,” Dillard said. “I also believe in panel interviewing for leadership positions to help ensure there is a strong culture fit.” 

Auction.com’s leadership team, according to COO and GM Min Alexander, is making sure they do their best not only to recruit and hire but also to develop the best talent “without barriers” and outdated ways of thinking. 

“For us, diversity and inclusion, it's just saying, ‘We want growth, we want different new innovative thinking, and we're open to different perspectives,” Alexander said. “All businesses want the smartest, the brightest, the most creative talent. To get that type of talent pool, you have to see folks with different backgrounds, different ways of thinking, different lifestyles, different ways that they were raised.” 

Jane Mason, CEO, Clarifire, said the discussions surrounding diversity and inclusion within the industry are “definitely overdue” and didn’t exist when she began her career.

She said it is vital that industry leaders discuss struggles that people are having with accountability and the metrics reported during the Financial Services Committee’s hearing. 

“Our companies are struggling with diversity and inclusion results as related to performance,” Mason said. “One of the keys that I would offer today is that access to the data does change behaviors. Collectively, the more we, as an industry, talk about it, and the more we come up with metrics that are acceptable based on the gender ratios in the United States, the better off we're going to be.” 

Mason recalled instances where she attended meetings and had people ask where the CEO was— when she was standing right in front of them. 

“My main experience was when I would walk in the room—there was an unintentional bias for credibility. Not only am I a woman, I'm a small, woman-owned business,” Mason said. “I'm an entrepreneur trying to get started. Our first three customers, which were very large, didn't see through a gender lens. They opened the doors and gave me the opportunities to perform, which I've held high in my value set that I would never let them down.” 

Mason has not forgotten those companies that opened doors for her, and she keeps a special reminder to them at Clarifire. 

“My theme song has always been Tom Petty's ‘Won't Back Down,’” Mason said. “All of our conference rooms are named after Tom Petty songs. I kept that close, and I just kept going and delivering. Deliver with confidence. If you make a mistake, admit it and move on.” 

Laura Escobar, President of Eagle Home Mortgage, said the heightened awareness on the issue is not always an easy one for diverse candidates in the mortgage industry is not only positive for society, but for business. 

“When different minds come together to achieve a common goal, the results can be nothing but incredible,” Escobar said. 

Escobar added that according to a McKinsey study, companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. 

For Escobar, having a diverse leadership is just “smart business.” She added that a recent article by the Harvard Business Review found that having a female presence on the board results in better acquisition, better investment decisions, and less-aggressive risk-taking. 

“Female directors are less conformist than men and more likely to express their independent views because we don’t belong to the good ole’ boys club.” 

Charmaine Brown, formerly of Fannie Mae, however, noted women are not advancing to C-suite positions and the numbers are even worse for women of color. 

She said, of the 532 African American women who earned their MBAs at Harvard Business School between 1977–2015, just 13% (67) have achieved the highest-ranking executive positions. This is compared to 19% (161) for African American men. 

“Let’s pay more attention to issues of intersectionality, where multiple stigmatized identities overlap, we know that outcomes are less favorable. People with disabilities and our LGBTQ colleagues still fear rejection and backlash and cover at work, which negatively impacts productivity and engagement. One size does not fit all, and solutions need to be equitable,” Brown said. “Finally, some people continue to struggle with diversity and inclusion and believe that it violates fairness and justice principles. It’s critically important to address these misperceptions and be clear about why diversity and inclusion and equity is both a business and moral imperative.”


“I am Not Interested in Golf”

Fitting into that aforementioned “good ole’ boys club” was not easy for Escobar. She said one thing she did during her now 30-year career— and something she has told her two adult daughters to do—is listen to sports news. 

Escobar said she had to stay educated to have something “nonwork related” to talk to her male colleagues about. 

“I feel like before we had to do so much to fit in, often taking away from myself, from my authentic interests. Today, women don't have to do that anymore,” she said. “Today you can talk about families, hobbies, travel, current events. You don't need sports to be interesting or to fit in.” 

Escobar noted she became a “sports boss” but quipped: “I am not interested in golf.” 

“It took me quite some time to constantly listen to what was happening, and what the Masters was, and who was attending, and what Tiger Woods' handicap was—non interesting items to me,” she said. “I would much rather talk about the vacation I wanted to take in Greece and get opinions.” 

Auction.com’s Alexander said, regardless of what people look like and where they’re from, “Everyone has a struggle.” 

“I do think that when someone meets me for the first time, they have stereotypes and preconceived ways of where they assume they know me,” she said. Alexander, reminiscing about her start in the industry, said she worked in strategy consulting with several male colleagues. 

She said her male colleagues tended to be more formal, adding: “The way that I would learn to adapt is to mirror how they were acting, sometimes for the better.”

Alexander said she has mirrored some of the ways men would sit, act, and even talk to each other during a meeting. “Some of it is that you don't bring 100% of yourself, or you refrain from talking about your family, or you refrain because of some of the ways that personal information could be viewed. … I have had comments where I was asked, ‘Are you able to do this? You've got children,’” Alexander said. 

“That's something that hurt me quite deeply early on because I'm looking at my manager and thinking, ‘You also have children. Are you limited because of yours?’” Mason said women in the industry need men just as much as women to help with sponsorship, accelerating careers, mentoring, and coaching to create a diverse pool of candidates. “It's already happening. If you take a look at the Financial Services Committee reports, some people are participating already and leading the pack,” Mason said. 

“The more proven data that you can share with an industry or within an organization, the more you're going to impact the change in that organization.” Mason said there is evidence of progress within the industry but using data and metrics within your organization is critical for behavioral changes across the board. 

In response to a report from December 2019 that found only 6% of CEO positions within S&P 500 companies are held by women, Dillard said, “We have a long way to go.” 

“That is why I feel strongly that my generation of leaders must spend extra time with younger team members to ensure they are getting the tools and training needed to succeed and work their way up. … To achieve a truly diverse and inclusive culture, we need to focus on cultivating a pipeline of young leaders,” Dillard said.


Giving Back

Mason said her company strives to make diversity a key part of its company culture. Clarifire is currently 60% female. She said that differing viewpoints—whether they come from men or women, regardless of background or ethnic profiles—increased diversity can help spur innovation. 

After all, the more different mindsets that are approaching a problem, the more likely one or more of them will spot angles that others might miss. Mason said the awareness of the unintended bias is the first step in growing a diverse and inclusive workforce. 

Mason described the process of being intentional in your awareness: “Looking at yourself and how you receive what the person in front of you is telling you. Taking that pause and going, ‘I shouldn't react this way even though it's an old habit.’ The culture of men can be more assertive and disagreeable and louder in its work activities than that of women … therefore, it’s construed as not quite as successful. 

Those behavioral aspects are hard for our society to overcome without working at it.” Diverse organizations also generate more revenue and more employee engagement, Mason explained. She said she would also like to see the growing diversity extending to vendors. 

Mr. Cooper Group celebrated the third year of its diversity and inclusion initiative earlier in 2020, Dillard said, adding the company has dedicated a great deal of energy into building awareness and education about co-workers and their diverse cultures. 

“Today, we have more than 15 employee resource teams, and it’s one of the things I’m most proud of,” Dillard said. “I truly believe that if we know more about our peers—their traditions, their belief system, their challenges—we can create more meaningful connections and work better together.” 

Carrie Tackett, Safeguard’s American Mortgage Diversity Council representative, said establishing a diverse workforce should be part of any successful corporate culture. Diversity “top-to-bottom business strategy” in the recruitment for all levels of employment. “This is not limited to our internal workforce. About 40% of our vendor network—inspectors and contractors—also is diverse. They represent a more than $90 million spend for Safeguard each year,” Tackett said. 

Marti Diaz, Chief Human Resources Officer at Mortgage Contract Services (MCS), said more corporate-sponsored initiatives around diversity and inclusion are being created as companies experience benefits from having a diverse workforce.

However, Diaz added that, for companies to recruit the best employees, they will need to do more than just host events and “post pictures on social media pages.” “Those organizations that can engage their full workforce to embrace diversity and inclusion will realize the most significant, long-term benefits,” Diaz said. 

Sean Ryan, CEO of Aspen Grove Solutions, said the easy part is putting together a diversity program, but the implementation is the challenging part. “We are dealing with people— and, by their nature, people have many differences. While that can be challenging, it is also very exciting. We have found that embracing those characteristics that make our team members unique, rather than trying to get everyone to follow the same path, is helpful,” Ryan said. “Aspen uses a combination of data to help this effort including personality types, learning styles, and demographics which, when mixed with scheduled one-to-ones, help us to understand the needs of our team members and allows us to work jointly with them to develop career paths that match their personal goals.” 

Diaz said MCS has seen great results around the recruitment, retention, and promotion of diverse and female candidates. MCS reports that 35% of its management team are minorities and 49% are female. 

“Our efforts are largely around providing a work environment where everyone can be successful and grow their career. Promoting from within our business has hands-down been our best D&I initiative,” Diaz said. Caroline Reaves, the CEO of MCS, has been with the company for 13 years. Diaz said female leaders at MCS don’t just hear about corporate initiatives—they have an “amazing role model” to watch every day. 

“Caroline is the biggest champion of our people-development culture, recognizing the importance of an environment where everyone feels comfortable coming to work and where everyone can be successful,” Diaz said. “Caroline dedicates one-on-one time with MCS leaders at all levels, providing real-time feedback and coaching. 

“CEOs who commit to providing that valuable coaching can be an organization’s most important D&I asset,” Diaz added. 

Alexander told MReport that diversity and inclusion work when “folks inside the door open the door” and encourage others. 

“The most organic, sustainable way is when company leadership and company boards recognize the need. It's a talent, just making sure that there are no barriers,” Alexander said. “Not intentionally selecting someone because of the way they look or because of their background. But at the end of the day, we're all hearts and brains, and if you just judged everyone on hearts and brains and everything else was decoration, we would have much more diversity just by virtue of wanting the best hearts and brains.” 

Alexander added that the tendency for group-think is high, especially if the group looks and acts the same. Alexander said that groups wanting to embrace inclusive programs need to be asked, “Are you ready to grow?” “It's less about who you want sitting there,” she said. 

"Instead, it’s that, whoever you bring in, you want them to be different so that you get a fresh perspective,” she said.

“That's the real philosophical business challenge you want to change.” Ryan said it is important to remember that diversity is about the people, not the process. He added that while it is important for diversity issues to be driven top-down, it is also vital to include everyone, across all levels of the organization, so diversity is “naturally blended and accepted” as company culture. 

“In Aspen, we have developed a ‘Community of Practice’ program whereby some of our seasoned team members are meeting with targeted groups to actively mentor and share information on a one to one basis—we are seeing very positive results from this program with both mentors and team members benefiting from the interactions,” Ryan said. 

Brown said Fannie Mae is also creating intervention strategies that focus on multicultural women and looking at convening community based dialogues in under-resourced communities with business and community leaders to increase understanding and build partnerships across racial and cultural differences.

Escobar said 60% of Eagle’s workforce is female and 57% of its management team is also female. “We believe in recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce that reflects the incredible diversity of the customers we serve,” Escobar said. Escobar added that Lennar runs a National Inclusion & Diversity Series, which recently featured a panel of women in leadership, as well as a panel for women in construction. 

While noting that progress with diversity and inclusion is evident, Escobar added, “I’m driven to accelerate it.” “Diversity inclusion is the right thing to do. It's good for business … I'm going to continue driving that bus.” “The future looks really promising for young professional women in America. The road to the board room has been paved for you. If you work hard, you're passionate about what you do, and you're authentic, go claim your seat.”

About Author: Mike Albanese

A graduate of the University of Alabama, Mike Albanese has worked for news publications since 2011 in Texas and Colorado. He has built a portfolio of more than 1,000 articles, covering city government, police and crime, business, sports, and is experienced in crafting engaging features and enterprise pieces. He spent time as the sports editor for the "Pilot Point Post-Signal," and has covered the DFW Metroplex for several years. He has also assisted with sports coverage and editing duties with the "Dallas Morning News" and "Denton Record-Chronicle" over the past several years.

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