More than 2,500 women gathered in New York on Oct. 16 for the 13th annual Women on Wall Street conference, themed, "It's Your Move: Driving Change in Your Career and Life."
Keynote speaker Brenda Barnes, Sara Lee Corp.'s chief executive, observed that despite corporations' efforts, senior leadership positions remain woefully devoid of women. Indeed, top investment banks, accounting firms and multinationals have pioneered ways to help competent women break into the male-dominated C-suites. While accounts of networking groups, courses on promoting your accomplishments and goal-setting sound good in news articles, what's the impression of the women at whom such programs are aimed?
From an administrative assistant to a partner, people we spoke with at the conference overwhelmingly positive about their employers' efforts to retain and promote women. All spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Tales From the Trenches
One woman who works in sales at an investment management firm said that while the motivations for starting such programs weren't always altruistic, they have been successful. "They didn't always start for the right reason - there may have been a lawsuit, or a client said they wanted to work with a company with women in top management," she said. "But once they foster that integration, it opens communication and the organization can see the benefit. But you have to make a business case for (promoting women). No one is going to do it out of the goodness of their hearts."
A manager in asset management said she is so impressed with her firm's support of employees' life changes and challenges, she's sticking with the company in anticipation of starting a family within the next few years - even though she is eager to change career paths and the appropriate opportunity for that hasn't yet arisen at her firm. "I would love to advance, but it is not the right time at my company," she said. "But I'm very loyal to the firm."
This manager added that she sees many senior women at her bank informally mentoring younger women, though networking events that had integrated the genders have fallen off in recent years due to budget cuts. "A lot of networking is done outside the company, and naturally women convene with women, and men convene with men," she said.
An investment bank assistant vice president was impressed that her firm is paying for her MBA, though she finds the courses designed to help women promote themselves have been hit and miss. "Some are too generic - telling you to figure out what you want to do, for example," she said. At the same time, she has learned concrete skills that she hopes will get her ahead.
Asserting Yourself: A Real-Life Lesson
Disappointed that a male colleague who did comparable work was promoted to vice president, she asked her boss for an explanation and learned the man had explicitly asked how to get promoted - something this woman assumed would happen once her hard work was recognized. Experts say this is classic female behavior that holds women back from reaching top positions.
That experience, paired with lessons learned at previous Women on Wall Street conferences as well as her bank's courses for women, taught the woman to be more explicit in naming her goals. "Next time I'm going to ask for what I want," she said.
A partner at a Big Four accounting firm is passionate that her company's plethora of efforts to promote women do in fact work - even though it has taken some time to get the organization's men on board. When female employees attended such events during business hours, some male employees would chide: "'The girls are going off to their tea party,'" the partner said. But after some lecturing about growing the company, as well as seeing that "what started out as a woman's program has evolved into a people program," that tune has changed. One man recently went on a part-time schedule to accommodate his competitive cycling training and competition schedule - thanks to a work-life policy with roots in maternity leave.
The firm just wrapped up its first course designed to identify top female managers and offer them networking opportunities and introductions to senior women executives. Feedback was tremendous. "The participants were overwhelmed. They said this was just what they needed," the partner said. "These programs definitely aren't lip service."