Women Leaders Share Vision for Path to Equity
(Originally published March 29, 2021) For Women's History Month, we talked with four leaders about what it will take to increase opportunities for women and create an equitable future.
We can learn a lot by looking back at the accomplishments of female trailblazers — women who have overcome barriers to achieve great things and make big contributions to society.
But what if those barriers didn't exist? How many more great things could women achieve and what other big contributions could they make?
For a look toward the future, we talked with four leaders to hear their thoughts about opening the doors of opportunity to women: Jessie Woolley-Wilson is a former member of the BECU Board of Directors and President and CEO of DreamBox Learning; Vanessa Pegueros is a member of the BECU Audit Committee and is a chief information security officer at OneLogin; Fumbi Chima leads BECU's Information Technology division as executive vice president and chief information officer; Melanie Walsh leads BECU's Human Resources and Administration division as executive vice president and chief administrative officer.
Women Valued Less Than Men at Work
As a Black woman who is CEO of a technology-driven education company and a board member for a financial institution, Woolley-Wilson's experience spans several sectors that are disproportionately led by white men.
She believes part of the reason women — especially women of color — don't advance is because they aren't valued in the same way as men.
"People say opportunity is so restricted because of gatekeepers," Woolley-Wilson said. "If we felt like a woman's contribution was as valuable as a man's, then we would find amazing ways to close the gap."
That lack of value seems to be, in part, a product of white male leaders only being around people who look like them in senior leadership roles.
"Leaders often lack proximity to different kinds of talent," Woolley-Wilson said. "Lack of proximity to women and people of color is tantamount to lack of proximity to excellence from women and people of color."
Pegueros added that blaming the opportunity gap on systemic issues shifts the focus away from the people who are positioned to drive change.
"I don't think systems and structures stop women," Pegueros said. "I think people who enforce those systems and structures stop women."
In Woolley-Wilson's experience, when leaders begin to increase diversity in their organizations, it is often communicated as doing a favor for women and people of color.
"They need to switch their thinking to it being in their own best interests, for the benefit of the organization," she said. "It takes values-based leaders who embrace what I call 'big-D' diversity," meaning all kinds of diversity, such as gender, race, culture and sexual identity. "What we find (at DreamBox) is that when you live your values, people show up on your doorstep. They want to work with you."
Advocate Early for Girls
If changing attitudes among male senior leaders is the first step, changing what we teach young girls should follow close behind.
Parents can play an important role in treating girls like they are capable. Like many successful women, all four women credit their families with instilling them with self-worth.
"The greatest gift my parents gave me was to make sure that I knew I was always worthy," Woolley-Wilson said.
From an academic standpoint, adults often have different expectations for young boys and girls in subjects like math and computer science, and those expectations influence how kids think about their own abilities.
"The best way to encourage girls is to start during their formative years," Chima said. "We need to encourage them by fostering curiosity, creativity and innovation."
Woolley-Wilson agreed that education is required, but it's not enough on its own. She cautioned against overstating education's potential to overcome race and gender bias.
"The bridge between talent and opportunity is education," she said, "but when I talk to a Black fourth grader, I can't honestly say, 'Just apply yourself and work really hard and you'll be ok.' Not only do we have to equip kids with a great education, but we also have to equip them for the world that they are going to inherit. That means preparing them for people who will not immediately see and appreciate their value."
Forging Their Own Path
As important as it is to dismantle barriers, high-achieving women often say it's also important for women to take ownership of forging their own paths.
Chima started to notice that the more she advanced, the more blatant people were about making sexist and racist comments, but she wasn't going to let them stop her.
"I was not going to be a victim," she said. "I decided I had a job to do and I was going to work against the odds."
Through a combination of perseverance and intellectual curiosity, she ensured she had the skills she needed to be successful, first in accounting, then in technology.
Chima recommends women take responsibility for learning how to advocate for themselves because often other people won't advocate for them.
"As women, we don't negotiate hard enough. We don't push back," she said.
Pegueros agreed. She was the first person in her family to go to college and was among the few girls in school who loved math and science. She became used to being a trailblazer.
"I was just super driven and determined," she said. "If people said, 'You can't do it. You shouldn't be here,' I never listened to them. I kept doing what I needed to do."
Focus on Hiring and Retention Practices
Once in a leadership position, the four women emphasized the importance of improving conditions for others. One way to accomplish that is by linking diversity to the organization's growth and impact goals.
"It's not something I want people to do because they are obligated by a program, policy or protocol," Woolley-Wilson said. "I want people to do it because it's something they can't not do."
Organizations should insist on a diverse candidate pool, even if it adds time to the process. If the candidate pool is consistently lacking gender, racial, ethnic and cultural diversity, the organization should change where it looks for candidates.
"If you are using recruiting channels that typically deliver 5% diverse candidates, it's time to look for different channels." Woolley Wilson said.
She also thinks hiring managers shouldn't ask how much applicants earn in their existing role. Instead, they should determine the salary range for the position and make job offers based on the candidates' skills and experience rather than a percent increase over their current salary.
"If you offer women a percentage increase over their current salary when they are making 70% of what their male counterparts make, you're perpetuating inequity," Woolley-Wilson said. "If we hire employees and they get a $30,000 increase, it's because they were underpaid."
Walsh was matter-of-fact about hiring practices and retention efforts being among the ways an organization can move toward equity.
"The first step is having an awareness about where the opportunities are and really looking at recruiting and retention strategies," she said. "At BECU, 57% of our population is women, but, just like many organizations, in the executive-level positions, there is less female and BIPOC representation. We recognize that is an area of opportunity for us, and that's why it's an area we are focused on."
One route to improvement is training people who make hiring decisions to learn about, acknowledge and take steps to mitigate biases.
"When you strip out biases, that's when you start to enable a higher level of representation," Walsh said.
Although systems on their own can't ensure equitable hiring practices, strong systems are essential because they direct how hiring decisions are made across an organization.
"The processes and protocols that we put in place from a systematic standpoint can make a difference," Walsh said. "How job descriptions are written, where we post positions, who is in our network, what organizations we are affiliated with, who is included in the hiring decision, how we are held accountable."
Walsh believes making improvements within organizations can have a ripple effect, extending benefits outside the organization: "At the end of the day, meaningful long-term change enables communities, members and employees to thrive."