Path to Equity: A Woman VP's Perspective
On her path from "Kelly Girl" to Vice President at BECU, Shawna Thompson has seen a lot of change for women in the workplace. She shares her story and support for other women working to advance in their careers.
Shawna Thompson's career with BECU started when she was home for the summer from Western Oregon State University, where she was studying business and marketing.
"I was a 'Kelly Girl,'" Thompson said, referring to the temporary staffing agency, now called Kelly Services Inc. "I took a typing test and got two weeks with BECU."
Now the Vice President of Servicing and ATM Operations, Thompson is celebrating her 30th year with BECU.
Thompson is excited about the changes she's seen for women in the workplace over the years — like more women in leadership roles, including BECU's new President and CEO, Beverly Anderson. But she also worries that women might be facing new challenges to advancing like she did within their current organizations.
Working Her Way Up
Thompson knows it's uncommon for people to stay with an employer for as long as she has. Only 10.8% of all workers stay with the same employer for more than 20 years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Contrary to popular belief, switching jobs multiple times in a career has long been the norm: For the last 40 years, employees have stayed with a job for an average of about five years.
But Thompson continued to have reasons to stay. She joined BECU during a period of growth. She had opportunities to work in different areas of the organization, and managers trusted her to try new jobs, even though she may not have had specific experience in those areas. The variety of work and the experience and confidence she gained were powerful factors in her decision not to move on.
Better Pay for Job Switchers
Even though Thompson is happy with her decision to stay, data suggests she might have advanced faster and earned more money if she had pursued opportunities elsewhere, depending on when she decided to make a move. With a few exceptions, those who switched jobs earned bigger wage increases than those who stayed, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's wage growth tracker, which dates back to 1997.
As women move up the ranks, changing jobs might also help narrow gender pay and opportunity gaps.
Closing the Gender Gap
Progress toward closing the gender pay gap has been slow around the world. In the U.S., for the last 20 years, women have been paid an average of 82 cents for every dollar men have been paid, according to the Pew Research Center.
The pace of closing that gap has been slowest at the highest earning levels, according to a report in the MIT Sloan Management Review.
That tracks with the relatively small number of women who have been able to advance to the highest executive levels of leadership: Only 25% of C-Suite positions are held by women and only 5% of those positions are held by women of color, according to McKinsey's Women in the Workplace 2022 report.
Getting into those higher executive roles often takes a job change for many women because men are more likely to get promoted from within the organizations they already work for, according to a report about research by Danielle Li, an MIT Sloan School of Management associate professor.
When women do change jobs to move up, they get an increase in pay that shrinks the pay gap while also increasing the representation of women at higher levels.
Thompson remembers a time in her career when a man got a promotion she was going for. It stung, and had her life circumstances been different, she might have looked for another job.
"I tell my daughter, I might have been loyal to my own detriment," Thompson said. "I wish, earlier in my career, I'd taken more risks. I might be further up the chain."
Among high-performing, management-track employees who are passed over for promotions, women are far more likely to stay in their jobs than men, according to Li's study.
Progress Varies by Industry
BECU (and credit unions in general) have made significant gains on gender equity compared with other industries.
Percent of BECU positions held by women:
- 58% of all employees
- 54% of supervisors
- 48% of directors
- 36% of vice presidents
- 40% of senior president positions
- 50% of executive leaders
BECU has several programs in place to continue making progress, including a multicultural leadership development program, a women's leadership employee resource group and annual gender pay equity review.
According to the Credit Union National Association's 2023 estimates, women hold 50% of all CEO positions at credit unions.
Different and Evolving Standards
Thompson may have had more flexibility to try different roles at the beginning of her career, but she also recognizes, in hindsight, that regardless of the job she had, she was likely being judged differently than men.
Recent research by Li of the MIT Sloan School suggests that even if women get higher performance ratings than men, they are rated lower for their "potential," a subjective metric that rewards stereotypical behaviors of men in leadership positions such as being dominant and outspoken.
At the same time, Thompson has felt penalized for displaying some of those stereotypical leadership behaviors. She recalls being asked after a meeting not to weigh in on a problem even though it was within her area of expertise.
"I was once told by a male colleague that I don't always have to share everything I know," Thompson said. "He felt I'd pointed out a weakness of his in front of others in the meeting."
Thompson also recalled being told she was "emotional" after a meeting during which she had been direct and emphatic about her opinion. In similar situations, men she's worked with have been applauded for being tough and authoritative when they displayed the same behavior.
Advice for Other Women
Thompson is grateful for her time at BECU and is proud to have spent her career with a purpose-driven organization. She is pleased with the progress toward equity and hopes it will continue.
While changes to systems and policies are necessary to achieve equity, Thompson has some tips for women who want to advance in their careers:
- Be confident in what you know and in your role as a leader: It's fine not to have all the answers. In fact, Thompson advises surrounding yourself with people who have different expertise than you do and letting them own what they know.
- Lead in a way that is authentic to you: You don't need to be aggressive and dominant to be successful. If compassion and empathy are natural to you, don't fight it. Emphasize those qualities in your leadership style.
- Advocate for yourself and find others to advocate for you: It's important to do excellent work and back up your successes with data, but don't expect your good work to speak for itself. If you don't feel like you are getting paid enough, ask for a compensation review. Find others in the organization who don't just mentor you, but who will amplify your successes with the right people.
- Be prepared to move on: If you get passed over for a promotion, don't let it defeat you. Keep your eyes open for other opportunities. Your next job might just come with more money and a bigger title.
- Support other women: If you reach a management position, take the time to be a mentor. Encourage women to craft a strategy for advancement and understand what their next steps are to attaining the role they want. If you are hiring, make sure your organization consistently reviews the salaries of the current team, and make sure your current staff are earning as much as the new people.