American Banker - BankThink: It Takes Every Kind of People to Make a Good Diversity Effort

American Banker - 10/17/19 | Written by: Mary Ann Scully

As a lifelong banker, I have seen many changes in the industry, but there’s still a reluctance to change in some of the most critical areas.

Too many bankers seem to be unaware of the danger of sameness in a world where change is a given. Too many bankers have yet to passionately push for including people of different backgrounds and perspectives at all levels of businesses.

As my bank has grown over the last 15 years, I’ve had exposure to many national, regional and local forums where C-suite executives in the industry connect with investors and advisers. Several times in the past three years, I have remarked to colleagues that I continue to feel outnumbered as a woman in those leadership forums — astoundingly so.

Over my career, I’ve been faced with challenges — not all and not most — by virtue of being a woman.

Banking is a tough business for all of us. The industry is highly leveraged and highly regulated, operating on razor-thin margins and requiring constant education in differentiating the marketplace. I’ve focused day in and day out on those challenges that have no gender.

When I started my career 40 years ago, I believed I was entering an age where legislative changes made anything possible for a young woman desirous of not just a career, but a seat at the table. I quickly learned that while everything might be possible, very little was probable.

I’ve worked in retail banking, commercial banking, international banking, strategic planning, and mergers and acquisitions. In 2003, I co-founded Howard Bank in Baltimore. Over time, I grew accustomed to the fact that I wore the only skirt at the table.

I took it upon myself to own whatever gender issues came up — just as I did all the other challenges I faced — and work the problem.

I started by taking a lower paying job offered by a more flexible institution instead of the higher paying job with more rigidity. I wanted to go into commercial banking but was laughed at, literally, and told I would first need to go into retail banking because I had only a bachelor's degree. (I later learned there were men in the commercial banking program with only bachelor’s degrees.)

I chose national and international banking in order to differentiate myself by competing with other banks, not my colleagues.

Hard work gained me the respect and trust of my colleagues, allowing me to further succeed in the industry when I returned to hometown banking. I had surmounted prejudice. Despite my own successes, I grew increasingly worried about the root causes of this status.

Six years ago, I had an epiphany. I was at a conference in Chicago with top-bank leaders nationwide, and I realized I was one of only three women with a special invite to the investor ballroom. How could this be? It was the 21st century and there were still so few women in executive banking, especially at the public-company level.

My deepest concern was not just for me or the endangered species of female executives. My deepest concern was the industry that I grew to love was ignoring the input of half the brainpower on the planet.

I decided to do something about it — one “starfish” at a time. Change, as the famous leadership video “Starfish Story” notes, starts incrementally. No one can make up for decades of selective inclusion, in which companies selectively include certain groups to prove diversity, overnight.

In response, Howard Bank instituted a women’s leadership development program to foster inclusion of different groups — women, people of color and LGBTQ — in our management team, but focusing initially on women.

After the merger with First Mariner Bank in 2018, addressing gender inequality was going to be our first official starfish. As a result, we have identified and developed talented employees, nurturing them along their career paths.

We have also tried to more intentionally work with banking associations, to provide women in the industry and female clients with more opportunities. My male colleagues started noticing what we were missing too.

This is critical because banking needs to be committed to identifying and developing talent through inclusion initiatives. Without representation from these groups, we are shortchanging the insights banks need to run the best business possible. And we desperately need all the talent we can get at the bank management and board tables.

The industry needs to encourage access to opportunities across a wide variety of groups, foster retention of this talent and support their promotion into leadership ranks. We have to be more intentional about including these groups; and it has to start with each person.

Some people woefully focus on blame. Because this is hard and many are very understandably impatient. But as an industry, we can do more to increase awareness of this issue and expand opportunities for women, and other underrepresented groups.

Although 46% of employees in financial services are women, they make up only 15% of executives and much fewer in the C-suite, according to a recent Forbes report. And nearly 40% of Nasdaq-listed companies in Maryland, where Howard Bank is based, have no gender diversity in the C-suite or around the boardroom table.

This industry needs to do a much better job of collecting data about gender equity and inclusion in banking and boardrooms to move forward and make the community stronger.

As an optimist, I believe once we are aware, we will acknowledge the need to change. And once we acknowledge, we can assume personal accountability.

Federal banking regulators now require all banks to report annually how many women are in the executive ranks. I also recently testified at the Maryland General Assembly in support of proposed legislation that would require both for-profit companies and nonprofits to report how many women are on their board. These are great ways to start measuring and benchmarking the progress of increasing gender diversity in banking and other industries.

Howard Bank, like many other companies, has more work to do to increase the diversity in the C-suite and on its board. While we are making strides, we can do better.

Admittedly, it is difficult finding women who have the background necessary to become directors because, throughout history, the ruling power structure has left women out. So, we start in a hole. Let’s fill it in with talent.

Moving toward inclusiveness will require leaders — both male and female — to be aware of this vacuum and commit to encourage a diversity of perspectives within the organization and the industry.

If diversity is viewed as critical to a company’s success and made a priority, then we can achieve equity, not just simply having a seat at the table. We will be ensuring a more well-rounded table, one that has many more points of view and experiences.

Mary Ann Scully, one of our Community Bankers of the Year in 2017, has appeared in our Most Powerful Women rankings several times. Her BankThink post is part of our annual Women in Banking series, which also features Citigroup Chief Executive Michael Corbat and the OCC's Maryann Kennedy.

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