Editor’s note: This feature originally appeared in the September issue of MReport.
The days are long gone when women were trying to break into the workforce. Now, they have their sights set higher—whether on the C-suite or launching women-owned companies. The housing industry has been no exception to this movement, so this month, MReport spoke with several women industry leaders to discuss their views on the changing industry, the challenges they’ve faced during their careers, and the ways they have learned to overcome them on personal and professional levels.
As we near the end of the second decade of this new century, we take a look back on what has influenced the progression of women in the business world, and the actionable steps we can take to continue the progression of equality in our society.
Debora Aydelotte is COO of Credit Risk Solutions, a provider of outsourced origination and due-diligence services. She told MReport that Dr. Derald Sue, a Columbia University psychology professor, cataloged a taxonomy of microaggressions exerted against female employees. Those microaggressions include what are termed “microinvalidations”—acts endemic in an environment that works to exclude or ignore individuals’ or groups’ contributions.
“Dr. Sue’s research found that microinvalidations can potentially be the most damaging type of discrimination because they directly and deceptively undermine and dismiss the individual’s self-worth and value,” Aydelotte said. “These microinvalidations can be conscious or unconscious.”
According to Dr. Sue’s research, microinvalidations range from interrupting women who are speaking during meetings to more egregious acts, such as women being passed over for promotions despite demonstrating every bit of the competency and professionalism of their male colleagues.
“Another issue is the myth of meritocracy,” Aydelotte said. “We want to believe that everyone has an equal chance of success. But if it were true, why is there so little diversity at the higher levels of companies?” asked Aydelotte.
Forward-thinking companies aren’t waiting for changes in the culture to seep into the business arena—they are aggressively pursuing ways to efficiently and effectively integrate and empower their female employees.
Some of the ways companies are working to tackle these problems include: 1) diversity and inclusion assessments; 2) employee/business resource groups; 3) formal and informal mentoring, career development, and recognition programs; 4) review processes that encourage vocalization of professional needs, including pay equity; 5) support of expanded industry and community participation among women, including at conferences, summits, and other events; and 6) the broadcasting of women employees’ achievements.
Lori Eshoo, President, and CEO of National Tax Search, LLC, says that her organization strives to include diversity at every level of management. Eshoo states that this promotes a healthy work environment that values every- one’s contributions and creates a fluid team.
“The message has been consistent that I will promote from within and I encourage growth and expansion of responsibilities,” Eshoo said. “Women hold more than 50 percent of my management team positions. More companies need to motivate and champion their women employees. Hire women, promote women, rally around women, and bring their strength and talent to the workplace.”
Committing to D&I Attitudes and inclusion that favor lead diversity to the creation and support of D&I entities that are instrumental in companies’ efforts to effect full integration. COO Aydelotte noted that Credit Risk Solutions has “a robust Diversity and Inclusion program that runs throughout the organization.”
“This year, we’ve made great progress by working across business units to collaborate on our D&I initiatives,” Aydelotte added. “Since this year’s International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month in March, we have built an expanding network of women with a lot of ideas and energy. I’m excited about what we’ll accomplish in the next year as enthusiasm continues to grow.”
Sarah Guber, Talent Lead at Blend, a Silicon Valley tech company involved in consumer lending, explained that Blend assesses “the number of underrepresented minorities in leadership” via company-wide Objectives and Key Results, or OKRs. Guber told MReport that these assessments help Blend “understand how we are growing but also help inform how we’re investing in the talent that we have at Blend. The goal is to create balance throughout all levels of the organization.”
Though Guber stated that Blend does not have particular policies for diversity and inclusion, “We have programs in place that assist different members of the community to ensure that their voices can be heard and that they can be equally represented.”
Deborah Jones serves as SVP, Director of Secondary Marketing for Home Mortgage at Citizens Bank, a financial institution offer- ing retail and commercial banking products. “At Citizens, we know diversity and inclusion is an essential element of everyone’s success,” Jones said. “Whether internally with our colleagues, or externally with our customers and communities, it all serves the same mission—to make everyone feel valued, respected, and heard.”
Building Better Resource Groups
Guber was eager to spotlight one of her organization’s employee resource groups (ERGs), Women-at-Blend. Guber said the group provides “a strong community within the company. Women can connect, engage, and find support, both professionally and personally.” Guber added, “At our monthly meetings, we often have different women at Blend share their experiences about navigating the workplace. Topics, like negotiating salary or giving difficult feedback, have been incredibly powerful to discuss as a group. By having the willingness to talk about what’s difficult, our community continues to grow even stronger.”
Guber further explained that Blend’s ERGs have rotating chairs who lead the groups for six months, giving their employees “the opportunity to grow their leadership skills.”
Sara Millard is EVP and General Counsel of mortgage insurance provider Arch MI. She told MReport that Arch MI currently has six ERGs that offer chances “for networking and development within the workplace and in the community.”
The Women & Allies ERG at Arch MI “specifically focuses on the needs and interests of women within the workplace,” explained Millard. “It hosts career- strategy workshops and assists the Women’s Resource Center of Greensboro through volunteering and contributions.”
Jones praised her company’s Business Resource Groups (BRGs), saying, “BRGs, which are part of our D&I programming, is one of the ways the bank shows support for the advancement of various employee segments. Today, we have a women’s interest group, a multicultural group, an LGBTQ
group, and a veterans’ group. The BRGs are championed by executive sponsors and chaired by senior leaders from across the bank to demonstrate commitment at all levels to developing our employees, providing opportunities for networking and engagement on topics and issues that matter most to them, and recognizing that our employees are people first.”
Mentoring Matters Mentoring, both formal and informal, is popular among women seeking enhanced inte- gration, as are career develop- ment and recognition programs.
Aydelotte studied management philosophies and techniques, which strengthened her approach to mentoring. “I dove deep into the writings and research of Dr. Edward Demming and Peter Drucker and was able to apply much of it, from a process mechanics approach to the mortgage process,” said Aydelotte.
Mentorship is available “across the company and throughout the employee lifecycle,” said Guber. While onboarding, new employees are matched with another team member, reducing “employee ramp-up time” and increasing “employee experience and engagement.”
Career development is paramount at Blend, Guber said. “We invest heavily in both development and recognition. We have a biannual 360 review process, development conversations, and both a quarterly and annual recognition program. We also have a company-wide Slack channel called ‘#gratitude’ where employees can publicly acknowledge and thank each other for going above and beyond.”
Millard explained that her company’s mentoring program appeals to those interested in being either a mentor or a mentee. “The program matches ‘best-fit’ pairs and is structured to incorporate both informal and formal mentoring opportunities,” Millard said.
“As an example, our Seasoned Professionals and Young Professionals ERGs recently hosted a discussion panel of company leaders called ‘Advice to My Younger Self,’” Millard explained. The discussion, which was open to all employees, was followed by a networking session.
Jones also detailed two of Citizens’ development programs. “We have an executive mentorship program to support professional and personal growth and help accelerate career trajectories. Within the Consumer Bank, we also have a rotational leadership development program that offers participants exposure to different parts of the consumer banking strategy and helps teach colleagues to make decisions with a customer-experience lens and lead with outcomes and solutions.”
Jones also revealed that Citizens Bank has a formal recognition program entitled “Credo Awards,” which gives “all employees great opportunities for recognition.”
Companies know let their employees know they are listening when they hold review processes designed to encourage employee input.
Aydelotte expressed her desire to see other companies “perform regular pay-equity reviews for all positions. Pay-equity reviews go beyond ensuring new hires or annual merit increases are within certain ranges. They are much more comprehensive, and they are analyzed by using a variety of data points that include gender, race, and age.”
“If you want to be involved, raise your hand, and the company will embrace your desire to seek new challenges,” said Jones. “Citizens’ annual review process includes various feedback sessions and allows individuals to set the direction for their career trajectory and express the areas they are most passionate about exploring or deepening their expertise.”
Jones added that she has seen instances where the company showed support for women who expressed interest in new challenges, as evidenced by “putting the individual on a key initiative that helps them close the gap they’d identified—even at times when there is not an open role in that space at the time—and to help build their skills for a role they may not be ready for yet. This allows the individual to ‘show their stuff’ and allows the leadership to evaluate, mentor, and provide the next career challenge.”
Ramping Participation Up
Expanding employees’ the participation horizons in their industry and community is another effective means companies are utilizing to integrate women effectively. Companies are actively sponsoring conferences, summits, and other events designed to promote women’s advancement within the mortgage industry.
Millard commended Arch MI’s backing of broader industry participation. Millard said, “In 2018, SVP Valerie Ausband established the Arch MI Executive Women’s Conference to bring together female leaders from across the country. At the initial event in Sea Island, Georgia, more than 40 women who work in the housing industry gathered to network, share insights and lessons learned, and discuss relevant trends.”
“Arch MI plans to present the Executive Women’s Conference every two years,” Millard added.
Jones believes other companies should emulate Citizens Bank’s laudable support of expanded industry and community participation. She said Citizens promotes women demonstrating “their leadership, passion, and success, for example, speaking at industry events.” According to Jones, such external participation validates women employees’ contributions “on many levels.”
“Our community involvement at Citizens is strong and genuine, and it allows individuals to give back to causes that matter most to them,” Jones said, “whether that’s a mentorship organization or a women’s shelter. At Citizens, our colleagues thrive on working together to improve the financial well-being of individuals, families, businesses, and our communities. While helping customers reach their potential, colleagues have the chance to fulfill their own through ongoing opportunities to learn and grow.”
Eshoo stressed the importance of women involving themselves in professional and community organizations and using these opportunities such as forums and panel discussions to network with other women and promote and encourage women in business.
“I began my career in the 1980s when the workforce was definitely male dominated—I encountered bias against women in the workplace almost every day,” Eshoo said. “But I have also been encouraged by the rise of female leadership and the continuity of women ascending to senior-level management roles. Now is a great time for women in business and we need to nurture one another to achieve our own individual goals. Women need to support other women— we learn from one another and we uplift one another.”
Advancing Progress Aydelotte adheres to the theory that women need to be aware that companies’ efforts cannot replace self-determination. Aydelotte champions development and education, telling MReport, “Years ago, I attained Six Sigma certification. Pursuing a deeper knowledge of process management helped advance my career with several employers and through the financial crisis.” She continued, “At this point, I set a personal goal to obtain a master’s degree in economics. I wanted to learn more about global banking structures, banking regulation, governance, and macroeconomics. I completed my master’s degree at the University of London in 2016.”
Goal setting is part and parcel of successful development. “Women should consider how they help their organizations conduct strategic planning, such as assessing industry horizons and setting strategy and apply the same process to their careers,” Aydelotte said. “On a regular basis, you should determine your personal and professional goals for the next few years and create a strategy and action plan to achieve them. Ask yourself at the end of every week, ‘What did I do to get closer to my goals?’"