Wisdom and Truth from Women Leaders
What does it take to shatter the glass ceiling?
You are almost certainly familiar with the term: a transparent barrier to professional advancement, especially affecting women and minorities.
Do you still have a glass ceiling at your place of employment? Is your company helping women to shatter or at least crack it?
At the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, we have been fortunate to have many women pave the way. Our VIEW (Valuing, Inspiring, Empowering Women) employee resource group hosted an event featuring four women on our Bank’s top leadership team.
These are women leaders who actively connect with and coach staff at the Bank throughout the year on issues of professional growth and development, and they brought that spirit to the VIEW. They shared their personal and professional journeys. They opened up about strategies that were helpful to them during their careers and that can still be applied today. I found it interesting to listen to them discussing their choices and barriers.
Below, I will share their words of wisdom. But first, let me share a little background.
Finding an Environment to Thrive in
I worked as a television reporter 20 years ago. In the broadcast communications field, being a woman was tough. We had to fight for the hard news stories. Lead news stories were given to older men who were viewed as more credible; I was given what I would call fluff or feature news. When I chose to stay in the city I lived in — instead of taking the coveted weekend anchor position in another market — a top network official said I would never be offered a job in the business again.
Thankfully, times change. The workplace for women, generally, has evolved to be much more inclusive. (Years later, I reconciled with that network executive, who became a dear friend.)
Today I’m working for an institution where many kinds of differences are recognized as strengths. The St. Louis Fed’s employee resource groups, like VIEW, encourage co-workers to bring their unique perspectives to the table to support an environment where excellence can thrive.
At the glass ceiling discussion, my colleagues and I heard leaders answer: What does it really take to shatter a glass ceiling? What qualities are needed to be successful, beyond technical skills?
Confidence Helps Break the Glass and Keep You Focused
Karen Branding, senior vice president for Public Affairs, said that confidence comes from honing your skills.
Before joining the St. Louis Fed, she was the associate dean of marketing and communications for Washington University’s Olin Business School. She also had a 15-year career at Anheuser-Busch, including serving as chairman, president and CEO of its Busch Creative subsidiary.
Branding discussed how at different stages of her career, she invested in her business and communications acumen.
“I knew my role would involve presenting in front of the CEO, so I went to town on my presentation skills. When it came to operations and financials, I thought, ‘I really need to know a P&L and how to run a business. I need to get an MBA,’ ” she said. “Media training, leadership training, whatever it was, I made sure that I tapped into any resources the organization offered to get the skills I needed.”
Well-earned confidence can also help you stay focused in the face of challenges, Branding said.
“Throughout your career, as you advance, you may face forces against you. Critics may say, ‘It’s not your turn.’ You can’t be distracted by that,” she told the audience. “Stay with your vision, stick with your plan, and know that you can.”
Growth Can Come Both Vertically and Laterally
Executive Vice President Kathy Paese shared advice that fits with what I’ve found to be true as I reshape my own career goals: Never be afraid to chart your own path, even if it means making a horizontal job move.
“Throughout my career, I had the opportunity to work on a lot of different projects, and each one with a little bit bigger scope and responsibility,” said Paese, who oversees the St. Louis Fed’s Treasury Division.
Before Paese’s current leadership role, she was vice president in charge of our Treasury Relations Support Office. Over the years, she has managed other areas and led initiatives related to financial services and IT.
“I think having that success of starting something from the very beginning, and carrying it all the way through to the end, really helped build my confidence,” she said.
But chances to grow her leadership and institutional knowledge came laterally, too.
“I often tell people that I haven’t had just one career at the Fed — I’ve had four. Sometimes I moved laterally within the organization in order to get more breadth of experience and learn about different functions,” she said.
“I’ve had the opportunity to work in a lot of different areas, and never once felt like I was being held back. I wouldn’t have stayed if I didn’t feel there were opportunities to move up.”
It’s Not Just What You Know, It’s How You Lead
Nikki Lanier is the regional executive of our Louisville Branch and a senior vice president. She is deeply involved in the community and has been recognized as one of the 10 Most Influential Women of Louisville, among other honors.
But years ago, as a young attorney transitioning into a corporate environment, she found herself having to continually articulate her worth, she said.
“As you excel and accelerate in your career, especially at a younger age — and in many organizations, if you are a woman — that becomes the quandary. Sometimes, the work itself becomes justifying and defending your competence to do the work. And that in and of itself is exhausting,” she said.
Later on, as she got her “sea legs," she started to understand that her how mattered:
“It’s one thing to be good at your job, but do people enjoy working with you?” she said. “It’s about honing not just what you know, but how you become a practitioner of that knowledge. Technical expertise will get you to a point in your career, but at some point it becomes about, how you can help hone the technical skills of others?”
Once you have the how covered, Lanier underscored the importance of the why:
“Can you as a leader establish and promulgate a vision, while moving with some level of fluidity within an organization’s vision, such that others are compelled to be a part of that by virtue of watching you?” she continued. “Do they feel inspired and connected to the larger purpose of the organization?”
Show Your Grit. But Give Yourself Permission to “Quit”
A large part of the discussion involved work-life balance, including the choice to start a family.
I am not in management, but I am of the generation of many of these women. Then and now, raising a family and staying on track at work is part of pushing through the glass ceiling. I think it takes as much sacrifice for women in 2019 as it did for us 20 years ago. There may be more conveniences to make working and raising a family more manageable, but it doesn’t take away the guilt and logistics that sit in our laps.
It’s about choices at that particular time in your life — the position you are managing when, or if, a family comes along.
Executive Vice President Julie Stackhouse spoke about how family shaped her attitude and choices, first as a daughter and then as a mother herself.
“I grew up in a very low-income family, the youngest of six kids. Neither of my parents was college educated. My dad grew up in the Great Depression and had an eighth-grade education; my mom graduated from high school, but it was a hard life.
“We had nothing other than the basics, and if you wanted something beyond that, you had to figure out how to get it,” she continued.
When asked about a moment that informed her work philosophy, Stackhouse shared:
“I remember this situation that, frankly, was something I reflected on many times afterwards. My mom was a housekeeper at a local hospital. She cleaned the surgery unit. We were going to church one Sunday, and one of the doctors came up and said, ‘Mary, I just want to tell you, you do the best job of keeping our surgery area clean. Thank you for the contributions you make for our patients.’
“These situations are so influential on your formation. Hearing the compliment of that physician helped shape me,” she said. “Just doing average is probably going to get you by. But doing the best you can, regardless of what job you have, is going to get you further ahead.”
When it came to starting her own family, Stackhouse didn’t want to do an average job at work or at home.
“It’s hard to describe how much complexity having children adds. My first one, who is a Ph.D. pharmacist now, was the child from hell,” she joked. “It’s hard to work long hours, take on extra projects and raise kids. It took so much energy. If you don’t have family support nearby, that can add to the difficulty.”
Stackhouse made a tough decision to leave the workforce when her career was on the rise.
“Did that affect my career? Could I be in a different job? Could I be in a different level at this point in time? All I know is, I had five fabulous years with my kids. We made that choice, and I have no regrets about it. It wasn’t a failure for me to be able to say, ‘We can’t do it all, we don’t have family support nearby, so let’s prioritize,’ ” she said.
“And then, later, my husband and I switched roles. I was able to choose work because my husband became a stay-at-home dad.”
Candid Conversations Can Inspire Change
To the four women who shared their journeys, thank you.
It was educational to hear the vulnerability, pitfalls and game-changers that helped shape their careers. They started their paths very differently, yet faced similar challenges with work-life balance.
At the St. Louis Fed, we are grateful for the choices and flexibility now available to employees because of others who surmounted barriers years ago.
(To all women out there who have torn down similar barriers, wherever you are, I ask you to remember to pay it forward. It’s still a battle. New mothers today still face guilt and hard-to-juggle schedules. If you were able to work from home or part time, don’t forget what that did for you.)
When looking at ceilings in a broader context, we’ve only scratched the surface. In the U.S., minority black women may feel they face the concrete ceiling. Asian Americans may feel they encounter the bamboo ceiling.
Barriers still exist, and work remains to be done. But having productive, candid conversations like these are part of the work.
A Parting Thought
For me, the greatest takeaway was from Branding. She spoke about paying it forward once you reach executive status, as well as during your climb:
“We all have a personal brand; what is the character we are known for in an organization? There is no space for being what I call an ‘undertaker,’ ” she said. “Be a good person. Live with integrity all the time. Things will go wrong; own it. Don’t throw others under the bus. Talk about what has happened and how to correct it. People admire that — it actually gets you more credibility.
“Focus on your personal brand. Define what it is and guard it with your life.”
This blog explains everyday economics, consumer topics and the Fed. It also spotlights the people and programs that make the St. Louis Fed central to America’s economy. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or Federal Reserve System.