Banks School Women in Breaking Through Gender Culture

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According to Financial Women International's 2005 figures, just 18 percent of executive positions in the top 100 nationally chartered commercial banks were held by women. Constance Helfat, professor of strategy at Dartmouth University's Tuck School of Business, found that in 2000, less than half of the Fortune 1000 had one or more women among their top-tier executives.

At this year's Women on Wall Street conference - to be held on October 16 - the theme is "It's Your Move: Driving Change in Your Career and Life." The program features women who have taken their careers in new and interesting directions. Speakers include Sara Lee Chief Executive Brenda Barnes, Carlyle Group Managing Director Sandra Horbach, and Polo Ralph Lauren CFO Tracey Travis.

The conference's theme of helping women take full control of their careers is part of a larger effort on Wall Street, which for years has concentrated its efforts on simply getting women in the door - and keeping them there. More recently the industry has realized that even very competent women weren't making it to their organization's top ranks. So today, investment banks are offering internal programs designed to identify capable women, figure out why they're not moving to the top tier of their male-dominated companies, and school them in how to get all the way out front.

"If you want the absolute best talent running your program, you don't want to exclude half of the population from the talent pool," says Helfat. "But women often think that just because they're competent, they'll get promoted." Programs at organizations including Citi and Deutsche Bank are helping women understand competence is not enough - something men have known for a very long time.

Moving Up

Deutsche's course entitled "Performance, Image and Exposure" helps women at the vice president level or above to better understand what it takes to succeed at even higher levels of the organization, says Denise Montana, the bank's head of diversity initiatives for the Americas. "Once women are recruited, we have programs to make sure they understand the organization and how to get ahead," Montana says. "Obviously they are technically competent, but we want to make sure they understand the unwritten rules."

Such rules include being proactive to ensure you and your work are recognized by others, and having a sense of how your work impacts your colleagues. "Men are socialized to be more team-oriented and to make as many connections as they can," Montana observes. "At times women can say, 'I did the job and now I'm heading home,' and they don't focus on networking outside of business hours. So we want to stress the importance of networking and building strong relationships either during work or after business hours."

To this, Patricia David, managing director and head of diversity and talent management at Citi Markets & Banking, adds: "A common skill we work on with women is communicating with impact. You need to make an impression in meetings...get your point across and make it a business proposition. It can be a blind spot and we try to help open that up." Other areas commonly focused on are closing deals and feeling equally comfortable selling to both men and women, David says.

To help women recognize and overcome what can be career obstacles, Citi runs a six-month course in which classes are held during the woman's normal work week. The program was started in 2000 and has been completed by 400 women. In one department, the turnover rate for women who completed the course was just 1 percent, compared with 13 percent for those who didn't take the course. In one London class, the retention rate was 90 percent.

Dartmouth's Helfat points out that "women beget women," meaning that the more women occupy C-suites at a company, the greater chance that women will be promoted to the top. Thus, a company's gender culture is impacted by having executive-level females.