SVP Faced Steeper Climb as a Woman in Finance Industry
(Originally published March 2, 2021) We talked with Jenni Fancher about how she overcame the challenges of being a woman in the financial services industry, her hopes for the future and what Women's History Month means to her.
When Jenni Fancher was growing up, she didn't notice that many of her interests were more popular with boys than with other girls. Math was always her favorite subject in school. She was more likely to get a Big Wheel than Barbies for a gift. Fishing with her dad was one of her favorite weekend activities.
Now, as a successful executive for a financial institution, Fancher does notice that, across the industry, there are fewer women at her level and above. She is Senior Vice President of BECU's Digital Transformation Office.
The numbers show Fancher's experience is common. According to a McKinsey & Co. report, in the finance industry, representation of women, especially women of color, drops off at higher levels of the corporate ladder. At the entry level, women make up 52% of the workforce, but at the C-suite level, 64% of positions are held by white men, 23% are held by white women, 9% are held by men of color and 4% are held by women of color. These numbers represent considerable improvement since 2018.
Overcoming the Odds
Fancher gives credit to her upbringing for providing her with a can-do attitude. Her grandmother fled a war-torn country after her husband was killed. After Fancher's parents divorced, her mother went back to school to become a nurse.
"I come from a line of really strong women," she said. "My mother was an example of not standing still but paving her own way."
Fancher's dad was kind and loving, and he treated her like she was capable instead of fragile and in need of protection.
"I don't think there was ever a point where I thought to myself, 'I'll never be able to achieve that because of my gender,'" she said. "I didn't see it as limiting."
Fancher got her start in financial services working part-time as an account representative at Great Western Bank while she went to college. After she graduated, she became a financial analyst, a move that felt natural to her. Soon after, Great Western was acquired by Washington Mutual.
As Fancher grew and progressed in different roles at different banks, she wondered why her male peers might get jobs or get promoted instead of her. She wondered what skill or experience they had that she didn't. She viewed it as a challenge.
"I remember thinking, 'I'll show them,'" Fancher said. "I'd wonder, 'What am I not doing? How can I show up better next time?' My response was that I would prove to them that I'm no different. I can outperform them. I'm going to be and do my best."
Although she liked to compete, she began to recognize that sometimes she had to work harder than men to achieve the same goals. At times, she was harder on herself than she needed to be, and, she noticed, the more she advanced, the harder other women seemed to be on each other.
"As women, we need to cut each other some slack," she said. "We need to support each other. We need to teach each other and cheer each other on."
More Equitable Future
Fancher is happy where she is and looks forward to continued growth. She feels like her work and her perspective are valued just as much as her male counterparts, but she realizes it hasn't always been that way in her career.
"I've been at three big financial institutions, and the tone has always been set at the top," Fancher said. "If senior leadership exhibits that men's club mentality, that permeates throughout the organization. I don't feel that at BECU."
Even though she is happy in her role, she sees opportunities for improvement across the industry. With the benefit of hindsight and her hard-earned skills and expertise, Fancher is keenly aware that the gender gap in executive leadership roles is coupled with a gap in pay.
As a white woman, she also recognizes that although the financial services industry was difficult for her to advance in, it's even harder for women of color and nonbinary people.
"I haven't had to fight my way through a lot of disadvantages that others have," she said.
Fancher thinks increasing diversity at higher levels is essential to improving products and services in every industry, and better service means better business.
"When you bring a lot of different people to the table to make decisions, the result has been informed by a lot of data as opposed to only one person's perspective," she said. "There is so much value in making decisions based on different experiences."
She said credit unions are particularly well-suited to lead when it comes to improving equity in the financial services industry because they are purpose-driven organizations. "Our purpose isn't just to make money," Fancher said. "We make money to be able to deliver maximum benefit for our members."
Data suggests credit unions have, in fact, made significant gains on gender equity at the highest levels of leadership compared with their commercial banking counterparts: 51% of credit union CEOs are women compared with 3% women CEOs at commercial banks. Also, 33% of credit union board members are women compared with 16% representation of women on commercial banks' boards of directors, according to a 2021 report by the Credit Union National Association.
Celebrating Women's History Month
Fancher feels deep appreciation for women throughout history who made many of her achievements possible, and, because of that, Women's History Month is significant to her.
"It's a time to reflect and honor the women who have stood up and fought for me and others like me to be where we are," she said. "They found their voice, and it's a reminder for all of us to find our voices when we see injustice. We are smart. We have a strong perspective. It's incumbent on us to carry the torch for those who paved the way so we can pave the way for future generations."