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Rising from the Ranks

shutterstock_132236606A growing number of women are making successful careers in the traditionally male-dominated mortgage industry, but the boardroom remains populated primarily by men. 

By Aly J. Yale

Though women have been making strides in the working world for decades—even in the traditionally male-dominated mortgage and financial sectors—it seems they’re just not as prevalent in higher-ranking positions as are their male counterparts.

According to the United States Department of Labor, women make up a large portion of the national workforce–47 percent, to be exact. But in leadership roles? The DOL says only 24 percent of all CEOs are women and, according to Catalyst, a research organization that aims to expand business opportunities for women, a mere 2 percent of those are CEOs at Fortune 500 companies.

But this isn’t just a general workforce trend. It also seems to carry through to the mortgage industry.

Catalyst shows that only 22 percent of directors in the finance and insurance industries are female, and if you ask some of mortgage’s highest ranking women, that dearth of females has been a common sight in the industry for years.

Elsa Lewis, EVP of Default Sales & Operations at Williams & Williams, has spent nearly 30 years in the mortgage industry, and in her time, she said, most of her bosses and leaders have been male.

“I’ve had some women in leadership roles over me through the years, but there have been more men by far,” Lewis said. “They were probably 70 to 75 percent men and 20 to 25 percent women.”

Donna Corley, SVP Single-Family Division Chief Risk Officer at Freddie Mac, had a similar track record throughout her career.

“I’ve only had one direct manager who was a female,” Corley said. “I’ve had 13 bosses, and 12 of them have been men.”

Lewis said while there’s no way to pinpoint a specific cause for this lack of female leadership in the industry, there may be a few factors at play.

“Maybe the financial world is just more predominately men than women,” Lewis said. “Maybe it’s that women haven’t fought for that place to be there, or maybe we’re just used to men being in those roles.”

Regardless of the reason, however, Lewis said there’s definitely room for improvement.

“There are some women in the mortgage industry,” Lewis said, “but there is definitely a lot of room for women to move up and take positions in key leadership roles.”

Dana Dillard, EVP and chief customer officer at Nationstar Mortgage, said she believes there’s room for change, too.

“I wish there were more female leaders,” Dillard said. “I do think as an industry where we’re so represented by women at the front lines and not so represented by them in the board room, that it is something we have to really work toward improving.”

Where the Women Are

Despite lacking representation in the board room, many of the industry’s highest-ranking women say there are still plenty of females in the industry—you just have to know where to look.

According to Angela Cheek, VP and counsel, Product Compliance at Ellie Mae, some areas of the industry actually have pretty high female representation.

“In the compliance area, there are a lot of women,” Cheek said. “In other areas of the mortgage industry, I think there are probably fewer.”

Corley cited human resources, sales, legal, origination and underwriting as other sectors that tend to have more females in the ranks.

Marcia Phillips, CEO at Guardian Mortgage Company, said that many women start in the front-lines—in operations, and other similar positions.

“Traditionally, women in the mortgage industry rise up the ranks through the operational environment, as processors, underwriters, administrators,” Phillips said. “This was the case in my own career.”

But it seems this representation in compliance, origination and other front-line areas is many times where it stops. According to Lewis, although she’s seen a number of women in origination, operations and middle-management positions in her time, that doesn’t extend to the board room or into key decision-making roles very often.

“I see more women in the second-tier management and more in operations than I see in the key leadership roles and decision-making roles,” Lewis said. “That is more predominantly men.”

Corley mirrored her sentiment.

“At least what I’ve seen at Freddie Mac is that we have fantastic diversity at the more associate level—at the junior levels,” Corley said. “As you keep going up, it declines. And I think that’s pretty universal. That tends to be a common trend.”

Bucking the Trend

But not every mortgage-related company is dominated by males. In fact, there are a number of organizations that have relied heavily on female leadership for decades.

Marcia Phillips, for example, is CEO at Guardian Mortgage—one of the few companies in the business to have a woman at the helm. But that’s not where her company stops. In fact, Guardian also has a female EVP and a female CAO, too.

In total, three quarters of Guardian’s leadership team is made up of women.

“Guardian has multiple women in leadership roles,” Phillips said. “The women have as much opportunity as the men to have a rewarding career.”

Lewis said her company, Williams & Williams, is blazing its own path in this regard, too.

“We have a lot of women,” Lewis said. “I just came from our senior team meeting, and it was probably 60 percent women, 40 percent men.”

Though there are some men in key roles at Williams & Williams, Lewis said a large portion of her organization is female—and she hopes other companies in the industry will follow suit.

Mentorship is the Key

Despite these anomalies, there’s still work to be done, and according to the industry’s leading ladies, there’s no miracle cure for improving female representation in the board room. Most, however, believe that existing women leaders can help the cause, both by providing a strong example and by mentoring women in lower-ranking roles.

“I try to be supportive of my women peers and, of course, those who are coming up the ranks,” Dillard said.  “As a woman leader it doesn’t take you long to realize that we need to be supportive of each other and to look for opportunities to promote the good work of our female peer group.”

Lewis agreed. “I think there’s some responsibility on women in key positions to help foster and mentor other women--to bring them in,” she said.

Cheek says she specifically encourages her fellow women to get involved in the industry, forums and to make presentations.

“I believe it is important to enable the next generation to stand on our shoulders to achieve greater heights,” Cheek said.

Corley actively mentors others throughout the Freddie Mac organization—from areas like IT, finance and a wide variety of other sectors. Currently, she is working with five different mentees.

“I think mentoring has been something that I’ve spent a lot of time doing—trying to help women grow and recognize there’s a safe environment to talk through different issues,” Corley said.

She specifically tries to focus on women with young children, as that’s something she experienced while climbing the corporate ladder.

“I feel like it’s my way of trying to give back,” Corley said. “I never really had that [a mentor] when I was in their spot.”

Though these women’s efforts in mentoring are honorable, it may not be enough to inspire industry-wide changes. Instead, Lewis believes there’s something professional organizations can do to help move things along.

“Perhaps there is an opportunity within some of the larger trade organizations, like the Mortgage Bankers Association, to foster that as well,” Lewis said. “Maybe some industry organizations could have some kind of mentoring program for women.”

Lewis believes in mentorship so much, she even tried to get a mentorship program together last year, to no avail.

“I tried to get a key group of 20 women together, executives in our industry, to foster and mentor women in key leadership roles,” Lewis said. “There was some interest, but I couldn’t get it to really take off.”

Dillard, who participated in a Women’s Initiative at two of her previous positions, said her company is developing a similar program as well.

“I loved participating in the Women’s Initiative when I was at Deloitte Consulting and EMC Mortgage, Dillard said. “We are just getting a similar initiative off the ground at Nationstar–bringing senior-level women leaders together to create a better community for each other.”

Established last year, the Nationstar Women’s Initiative “focuses on empowering, inspiring, and sharing ideas to help with development of women officers, and provide networking opportunities across different areas to foster connections.”

It is designed for female EVPs and SVPs, and includes more than 25 senior officers at the company. It offers professional development, networking events, on-boarding support to new female officers and a formal mentoring program.

Freddie Mac has several programs for women, too. There’s the WIN Women’s Interactive Network, mentoring circles and, in past years, Women’s Cohort groups. These, Corley said, were designed to identify “high-performing, high-potential female employees” and provide them with networking and training opportunities.

“I found that I, as a mentor, was probably learning just as much as the mentees,” Corley said, “hearing all the issues that they’re going through and just being able to provide guidance and perspective.”

Changing the Tides

Though mentorship is a great starting point, many female executives also say that women can take the matter into their own hands by blazing their own paths and demanding a spot at the table.

Specifically, Dillard said, it’s important for women to be confident.

“I wish that someone had told me to have more confidence in myself and not always think that the people in control or the ringleaders had some sort of special gift or some sort of special insight or knowledge that I didn’t have,” Dillard said. “I just don’t find that to be true. I think for most women, if they work hard at it and they become a student of their business, the sky’s the limit.”

According to Corley, taking risks is also a must.

“Be willing to take chances, Corley said. “As scary as it can be to leave something that comes very easy to you and having to trying something new, that’s really how you learn and you grow.”

Being plugged into the industry is important, too, Lewis said.

“Get involved,” she said. “So much of it starts with putting yourself out there to do it. Volunteer, help, be a sponsor, be an advocate. Do something about it. Don’t just let it happen.”

Cheek said participating in industry advisory groups, writing for publications and other acts can help women get their foot in the door as well.

“I think it’s important for there to be opportunities for women to build relationships with other industry participants,” Cheek said. “They need to get their viewpoint on the industry out there.”

Phillips agreed that being heard is tantamount.

“Be strong and willing to work hard,” Phillips said. “Do not be afraid to offer your opinion when you can back it up with well-thought-out ideas. Do not follow the pack.”

Finding a Work-Life Balance

Some executives in the industry feel motherhood and familial obligations could play a role in the lack of female representation in the board room, while others say it’s just a matter of time management, knowing your priorities and making the right choices.

“For any executive woman, I think that we suffer from mother’s guilt,” Dillard said. “I don’t necessarily always think that my male peers suffer from it. We want to be there and do those things with our kids and sometimes it’s hard to do. Most of my colleagues that are women, we all suffer from that—wanting to be there.”

Corley said she thinks family demands may affect a woman’s willingness to network, too—a crucial part of moving up the corporate ladder.

“Networking seems to be something that women tend to prioritize very low,” Corley said. “When you’re trying to do that balancing act between work and home life, the thought of going to a happy hour or some type of networking event isn’t appealing. It’s time when you’re not in the office and it’s time when you’re not with your family. Unfortunately, I think those are some of the types of activities that would potentially lead to career advancement opportunities, and open doors and connections.”

But Lewis said that it’s all a matter of choices.

“People do what they want to do,” Lewis said. “At the end of the day you have choices, and I do believe you can raise children and be a great parent but also be a professional and work with excellence and not have to sacrifice time.”

Lewis said she has found that working smartly, as well as having a great team around her, is the key to juggling a family life and a career as an executive in the industry.

“It’s working smartly, working wisely,” Lewis said. “It’s having great people to work with, and not taking everything on yourself. The workload doesn’t have to all be on me.”

Corley says self-awareness is key, too.

“I think everyone needs to understand and really be self-aware of what they can do and what they can’t do,” Corley said. “I try to think of work or your career as a marathon, not a sprint. And as in a marathon, there are times when you’re going to be running a whole lot faster and there are times when you need to slow it down a bit.”

Moving Forward

While the numbers of women in the workforce—and the mortgage industry specifically—have seen growth over the past few decades, it seems there’s still room for improvement.

“I definitely think there’s been some growth for women,” Lewis said. “Is it as fast as I’d like to see it? No. But I definitely think there’s been some growth, and I think there’s growth still going on. Hopefully potential women leaders will continue to step up and fight for those key decision making positions as we move forward.”

Phillips said she believes they will.

“Now that the industry is moving from a sales-driven business model—and sales tends to be a male-dominated arena—to one that values operations and compliance, I believe we will begin seeing more women in executive positions,” Phillips said.

Lewis agreed.

“I do think the industry is just not as open for women as it is for men,” Lewis said. “I think women have to fight harder for it, but I think they will. They’ll be up to the challenge to do it. I think 20 years from now we’re going to see a completely different mix of genders, and it will be much different than it is today.”

Aly J. Yale is a freelance writer and editor based in Fort Worth, Texas. She has worked for various newspapers, magazines, and publications across the nation, including the Dallas Morning News and Addison Magazine. She has also worked with both the Five Star Institute and REO Red Book, as well as various other mortgage industry clients.

Editor's note: This select print feature appears in the August 2015 edition of MReport magazine, available now.

About Author: Aly J. Yale

Aly J. Yale is a freelance writer and editor based in Fort Worth, Texas. She has worked for various newspapers, magazines, and publications across the nation, including The Dallas Morning News and Addison Magazine. She has also worked with both the Five Star Institute and REO Red Book, as well as various other mortgage industry clients on content strategy, blogging, marketing, and more.

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