Leading women into senior management

What started as a series of informal social gatherings among the high-ranking women at State Street, the Boston-based financial services provider, has become a fully fledged effort to develop and promote female managers.

The programme, called Leading Women, provides mentoring, training and sponsorship by the company’s 12 female executive vice-presidents to dozens of female senior vice-presidents. Last month, the inaugural class of 24 graduated – one of whom has already been promoted to executive vice-president.

Forty-five per cent of State Street’s employees are women, but at the executive level the figure is only 22 per cent. It is a common theme across the financial services industry. According to a 2010 study by Catalyst, the US not-for-profit diversity group, only 16.8 per cent of executive officers and 2.5 per cent of chief executives at US financial companies are women.

I recently spoke to Alison Quirk, head of global human resources at State Street and herself an executive vice-president, about the programme.

“It began with a group of us talking over dinners and lunches about how we could create a network for ourselves. It got us thinking about what we could do to help women rising up in the organisation,” she says. “So in May 2010, we started Leading Women.”

Each executive vice-president took on two senior vice-presidents identified as having high potential, and started a process of mentoring over the course of 18 months.

“The intent was to develop their careers: from helping them get visibility in the organisation to helping them identify the next opportunities, get on non-profit boards and get on new project assignments,” says Quirk.

But can the programme be replicated at other big banks?

Quite possibly. Quirk believes the reason for the dearth of women in higher management in financial services is because men already dominate the senior executive level. They are the ones who are “most often making the day-to-day, moment-of-truth decisions about who to hire, who to assign to a project and who to promote”, she says.

“There’s a compounding factor,” Quirk adds, “because men tend to hire people who are most like them. It’s a very hard thing to change, but because we want women to have an influential voice in this company, we’re trying to do it.”

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