The late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg once said, “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.” Yet, in financial services, women in leadership positions have, unfortunately, been the exception. And while progress has been made, statistics demonstrate that women holding leadership in banking and finance positions remain below parity. Last year, Deloitte released a study demonstrating a modest rise in women’s leadership roles from 22% in 2019 to 24% in 2021. However, the same report revealed that the percentage was only expected to rise to 28% by 2030.

Despite slow-growing seeds of change, female financial business leaders are doing their part to disrupt stagnation. In the Grand Canyon State, women in banking, credit unions and other financial institutions are evaluating next steps and taking action to make way for new generations of female leaders.

While women in financial services leadership roles are behind average, gains in entry-level held by females prove to be more progressive. According to a 2021 McKinsey publication, women in entry-level financial services jobs comprised 52% of the industry workforce. But, as referenced by the report, “their representation falls off every step of the corporate pipeline.”

Lacking leadership in higher ranks

“Each time a woman stands up for herself, she stands up for all women.” — Maya Angelou

The realization that women lose their place the higher up the food chain they go, prompts a significant question: why? A recent Forbes article suggests that factors such as lack of flexibility, commission-related pressures and extensive time commitments may partially explain why women are underrepresented in higher leadership within the financial services sector.

Kelli Tonkin, senior vice president at Enterprise Bank & Trust is one of Az Business magazine’s most Influential Women of 2022.

“There could be so many variables,” says Kelli Tonkin, senior vice president at Enterprise Bank & Trust and one of Az Business magazine’s most Influential Women of 2022. “I’m not sure if the pandemic has slowed down [the rate of progress in female leadership] with working mothers who needed to take a step back in their careers to be with their children who were being homeschooled.”

Many studies and polls affirm Tonkin’s hypothesis. According to a story published by Institutional Investor in 2021, close to one-third of women within the financial services industry either temporarily or permanently left their jobs during the pandemic. And, due to having to attend to children at home or other pandemic-related demands requiring work-life balance alterations, 59% of surveyed women in executive and senior leadership roles reported that the pandemic adversely affected their careers.

But home-life balance is something for which many women in finance and banking leadership have had to contend with.

“When you’re getting interviewed by a male leader who knows you have a family, does that play into the decision process?” Tonkin speculates. “One of the questions I always get asked when showing interest in a leadership role: How comfortable are you with travel?”

Aside from work-life balance, there are other barriers inhibiting the advancement of female leaders in the financial space.

“I honestly think companies have been spending a lot of resources and time trying to bring diversity to the workforce, but it’s not enough just to hire women at the same rates you’re hiring men,” says Adaliz Gimenez, vice president and commercial banker at Bell Bank. “Companies need to understand that change has to come from the top. It’s a matter of equity and equalities, not a matter of numbers anymore. If a company is still focusing on the numbers, they’re falling behind the curve.”

Adds Kim Dees, senior vice president and Southern Arizona Division manager for WaFd, “[Companies] need to — I don’t want to say level the playing field, but if you have a pool of colleagues that are certainly qualified for that position — look past that and look at their own structure in the leadership of their company and see who would be the best-suited candidate. And, I think that companies should be looking at that as opportunities for women to advance.”

Appraising diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI)

“Justice is about making sure that being polite is not the same thing as being quiet. In fact, oftentimes, the most righteous thing you can do is shake the table.” — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

In an effort to rectify the imbalance of female leadership representation, many banks and credit unions are assessing and implementing various strategies and programs designed to encourage more female leadership.

Adaliz Gimenez, vice president and commercial banker at Bell Bank, is one of Az Business magazine’s former Most Influential Women.

“One of the ways OneAZ has been successful at developing leaders is our Leadership Engagement Accelerator Program (LEAP) for associates,” says Tanasha Lawcock, OneAZ Credit Union’s DEI&B business partner.

Lawcock goes on to explain that the two-year training program centers on leadership aspects such as project management and understanding different types of biases to help prepare associates seeking leadership roles. “I’m proud to say that women are participating in this program at a very high rate. In fact, in our current LEAP class, just over two-thirds of the participants are women,” she says.

Alongside businesses establishing leadership training strategies and programs, DEI-focused groups, departments and initiatives are increasingly more imperative in boosting the presence of not only female leaders but also women of color in leadership.

The McKinsey study referenced earlier reflected that the representation of women of color declines steeply the higher up the corporate ladder, dropping a staggering 80% from entry-level to the C-suite.

“I was blown away by that number,” says Gimenez, one of Az Business magazine’s most Influential Women of 2020. “I knew there’s a disparity. It’s very obvious, but 80% — that is awful. Unfortunately, it starts with equal access to education. Why? It’s because, from very early ages, we need to make sure that we are providing our women of color the exact same opportunities, that we are telling them how amazing they are, that we stop telling them, ‘You need to tone it down.’”

Gimenez reveals she’s been told in the past she was too loud, needed to “tone it down” and even “blend in.” “I’m a proud, loud Latina. And you know what? No, I’m not going to tone it down, because that’s what makes me. That’s what makes me special, different,” she shares.

Gimenez observes that these callouts “typically come from a place of fear, fear of the unknown, fear of what’s different.” But she points out, “those differences are what make us who we are and how awesome we can be.”

“As a woman of color,” Lawcock says, “it’s always my hope to see more people of color, especially women in leadership roles, so our voices can help make rich and meaningful contributions within our respective organizations and communities.”

In her role as DEI&B business partner, Lawcock says she works daily to reflect OneAZ’s commitment to being a leader in the banking industry by promoting equity and equal representation at all levels of the organization. “I come to work each day eager to help build an environment where our associates feel a sense of belonging, which means that they feel safe to bring their full selves to work each day,” she says.

Fostering future female leaders

“There is no limit to what we, as women, can accomplish.” — Michelle Obama

Beyond recognizing what DEI measures are needed and how to incorporate them, mentoring — formal or informal — has been an integral aspect of encouraging women in finance to further their careers.

Tanasha Lawcock is OneAZ Credit Union’s DEI&B business partner.

“I think that we need to have both [formal and informal mentoring] because they each bring a different component,” says Dees, one of Az Business magazine’s most Influential Women of 2020. “I really feel that many companies do have some sort of a mentoring program, but I also feel it might be on the shoulders of us women in leadership to bring another piece of that to the mentoring of women.”

Giminez agrees with Dees, adding that while formal mentoring programs demonstrate the company’s interest and commitment to fostering growth for new generations of female financial experts, they can also be limiting. “They’re great,” she says. “But sometimes they’re a little bit forceful. The company’s telling you who your mentor is, and that doesn’t necessarily match what you feel as a mentee or a mentor for what you should be doing, or exactly what’s needed.

“And I think another very important thing is that mentorship isn’t — and cannot be — handing something out like, ‘Oh, I’m going to help this person. I’m going to give them opportunities.’ No, mentoring is actually recognizing that person already has what it takes,” Giminez continues.

Adds Lawcock, “To be effective, mentoring should not feel intimidating. A more informal process removes barriers, empowering the mentor and mentee to build trust between each other. Through trust, we can develop deeper connections with each other, which in turn opens us up to growth and improvement.”

One thing which all women interviewed for this story agree on is that even though progress has occurred in terms of women acquiring leadership positions, it hasn’t been quick, easy or as progressive as they would hope. Yet, they are cautiously optimistic and welcoming of continued change.

“25 years ago, I started with Lafayette Bank as a teller,” Dees says, “And today, I’m a district manager supporting 11 branches in Southern Arizona. I’ve been fortunate to work in a culture that allowed me to be recognized for my ideas and my contributions.”

Adds Tonkin, “I started in banking, so I don’t know anything different. I’ve seen some improvement over two decades, but not an impactful improvement. We are certainly the minority in leadership.”

Giminez closes with this affirming notion, “I think as women, we’re becoming more assertive when we are pursuing opportunities. We’re not waiting for those opportunities to knock on our doors. We’re more aware that we do have what it takes. What we bring to the table, our skills, our experiences, they’re huge, they’re great and they make companies better.”