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We’ve Come a Long Way Baby

The following is an article featured in MReport's August issue, available now.

It might be old hat to say that  women have come a long  way in the workforce in the past half-century, but it's true. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the percentage of women participating in the labor force has climbed from less than one-third at the end of World War II to 57.7 percent as of 2012.

The make-up at the top has also changed, albeit at a slower pace. While it may have been common in the "Mad Men" days to see women working as secretaries for male-dominated firms, it's becoming more commonplace today to see women occupying those top level roles (including posts on the president's cabinet—a different kind of secretary altogether).

What's behind the rise of women in the workplace? Evolving social norms and attitudes have certainly helped open the door, even if just a crack. At the heart of it, though, are the women who take it upon themselves to step through.

Taking (and Giving) Opportunities

One such person is Jo Ann Kruse, president and COO of Matt Martin Real Estate Management. Kruse is one among the very small group of women who have seen the view from the top. She attributes her success to her love for what she does—"Truthfully, if I didn't have my husband and my kids and a couple of dogs, I wouldn't go home," she laughs—as well as her ability to help others excel.

"That's how I believe I have added value to many organizations, by helping individuals that were on my team or reported to me improve their own positions, and as a result that improves the quality of the company," she said. For all her talent and drive, she notes there have been opportunities throughout her career that likely came as a result of her gender, thanks to industry efforts to diversify. In those situations, she said, her focus was not necessarily to prove a point but rather to "just put [her] head down and get things done."

Amy Brachio, partner and head of consumer compliance at Ernst & Young, echoed that sentiment.

"Once I had the seat at the table, I—like anyone else—had to demonstrate the value that I could provide," she said.

While both Kruse and Brachio have both worked hard to get where they are, their experiences don't necessarily reflect the norm.

While the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that women account for nearly 52 percent of all workers in "management, professional, and related occupations," they make up less than 15 percent of executive officer positions at Fortune 500 companies, according to Catalyst, an organization devoted to achieving gender equality in the workplace. (The financial services sector has a slightly better gender balance, but not by much, at 17.6 percent.

With that in mind, Brachio has made it a mission of hers at Ernst & Young to pay her good fortune forward by establishing and leading Advancing Women Executives (AWE), a group focused on expanding the role of women in the partnership at the firm's Financial Services Advisory Practice.

"This has been of critical importance to [Ernst & Young] for many years, [and] we felt that there were areas that we could improve," she explained. "I reached out to our leader and said, 'You know, I think this is an area that we could have even better representation of women in the partnership,' and he took me up on taking it on."

The results have been undisputedly positive: By bringing together the firm's female partners and identifying its problem areas, Brachio says the practice has made great strides in promoting more qualified women to the role. In fact, spurred by the initiative's success, Ernst & Young is now applying AWE's approach to drive an increase in representation in the partnership of black, Latino, and Asian executives.

The Benefits of Diversity

It makes sense that a firm like Ernst & Young would support its employees' efforts to boost diversity at the highest levels. More and more, companies are learning that balancing out their top leadership is just good business.

In a report released in 2012, experts at Credit Suisse research found that companies with at least one woman on their board of directors tended to achieve better financial results over the previous six years, average 16 percent return on equity (compared to 12 percent for companies with all-male boards) and 14 percent net income growth (compared to 10 percent).

A report released by Catalyst the year prior turned up similar results, showing companies with the most female board directors outperform others in terms of return on sales, return on invested capital, and return on equity. And those aren't the only benefits, says Liz Mulligan-Ferry, director of research at Catalyst.

"Our research shows that there is a link between financial performance and diversity, especially when you look at women on the board," she said. "But there are also links to better retention [and] better employee satisfaction."

Role Models

Setting aside the dollars and cents, it makes for a more positive working environment when people see success among others who look, think, and feel like themselves, whether they're relating by gender, nationality, or race, says Heidi Boyle, who also works at Ernst & Young as principal and leader of the firm's customer practice for financial services.

"For women, the more that they see other females in executive ranks, that they've been able to do that on their own merits, that's very inspirational," Boyle said. "Seeing all those real-life examples and seeing people they know and can respect—that makes it a lot more tangible and practical for them."

After all, it's those role models who inspire others to achieve the same heights.

Early in her banking career, Effie Dennison worked at First Interstate Bank in Texas, which at the time was headed by CEO Linnet Deily, who Dennison recalls "set precedence, not only in the industry, but also within our organization." In her time there, she also worked under two other women—an SVP and an EVP—that both helped mentor her in her early days.

Now, Dennison is an SVP herself, overseeing business development at VRM Mortgage Services—a position she's not certain she might have climbed to if she had started anywhere else.

"In all honesty, I really don't know how things would have turned out if I had gone to another more mainstream, male-influenced bank and experienced some of the career setbacks that many of my industry colleagues experienced," she said.

Given her own experiences and the hurdles she witnessed some of her peers having to clear, Dennison now maintains that women who have made their way up to leadership roles have a responsibility to clear the path for those following, conjuring up former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's famous quote: "There is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women."

That responsibility doesn't only apply at the office, though. For others, the position of "role model" is a more personal one—as is the case for Brachio, who has two young daughters. Out of all the conversations she's had regarding women in the workplace, one sticks out to her.

"Once, I was talking to my older daughter about her future plans, and she said that her plan was to have a cool job like mine and to find a husband like Daddy who takes care of everything at home," she said. "We'll see the choices that she makes for herself and her family, but I think we're seeing a change in dynamic for the girls that are growing up to day than maybe when I did."