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Breaking Down Barriers as “the Only” Woman: Stories from Women in Banking and Energy Leadership

Visier’s Women in Leadership event series brings together women leaders and aspiring leaders to discuss how they, and the communities around them, can help move the needle on gender equity and parity.

Last month, we were privileged to host a Women in Leadership event in The City with No Limits: Houston, Texas. Our Houston event featured inspiring changemakers: Maryann Bruce from Paradigm for Parity, and Sue Ortenstone, CenterPoint Energy’s Senior Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer. These are two women who experienced first-hand what it was like to be “the only” woman in a male-dominated industry. Here are some highlights from their talks.

Passionate advocacy–with high expectations

As one of the first female leaders in banking, Maryann Bruce noticed early on in her career that women were frequently stereotyped. For example, men were praised for being aggressive taskmasters, but if women displayed the same behavior, they were seen as being pushy and stubborn. Rather than being praised for her passion about work and her high expectations for results, Maryann was told her emotions were a “liability” and made her look weak.

Thankfully, this feedback didn’t deter Maryann, who continued to bring passion and high expectations to her work. This led her to achieve impressive career success: she has been recognized as a top female board member to watch and as one of the 25 most powerful women in banking. Maryann is now directed, with laser precision, on moving the needle in gender parity in corporate leadership

In her talk, Maryann discussed the reasons behind founding Paradigm for Parity (the leading employer coalition for gender parity in corporate leadership), and why CEOs need to lead by example. She emphasized the need for companies to “know their baseline”—where they stand today on gender parity in leadership—and outlined Paradigm’s five-step action plan to help companies achieve this parity.

Maryann also emphasized how progress against gender parity goals should be communicated regularly and throughout a company across four critical areas: recruiting, retention, career advancement, and sponsorship.

When I last spoke with Maryann in October 2018, the Paradigm for Parity coalition had just over 80 member companies. A few weeks later, their membership count is in the 90s, showing how bringing passion and high expectations to work can create big impact and results.

Breaking barriers as “the only”

Like Maryann, Sue Ortenstone, CenterPoint Energy’s Senior Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer, is a true groundbreaker. In 1979, Sue was the third female engineer hired at a Fortune 100 energy company and became one of the first women to go offshore.

Early in her career, Sue experienced first hand the challenges of being the “only” woman and the need to break down biases and barriers. Male colleagues frequently told Sue, “You shouldn’t be here. Women aren’t good in this industry. You’re taking a man’s job.”

Sue shared how–as the only women staying on a construction barge–she dealt with harassment, hazing, and attempts to intimidate her. This led her to a realization: while she couldn’t control the behavior of those around her, she could control her performance and do the best job she could to pave the way for more women in the energy business.

Sue shared several key recommendations about how to overcome the conscious and unconscious bias that may be holding us back from career progression:

  1. Observe: Observe how effective leaders and colleagues operate to understand what works and what doesn’t.
  2. Focus on (and embrace!) the positive: In the midst of a lot of negativity in her early career, Sue found many “diamonds in the rough”–team members and managers who collaborated with her, supported her, and mentored and sponsored her.
  3. Build relationships: The heart of success at work is the relationships we build. Sue encouraged us to be proactive and engage with people at all levels of our organizations.
  4. Be self-aware: None of us are perfect. Seek out feedback and always strive for self-awareness and improvement.
  5. Be courageous: Say what you think. Don’t hold back. Be a changemaker.

What’s next?

The most recent Women in the Workplace study–conducted by McKinsey in partnership with–found that “companies report that they are highly committed to gender diversity. But that commitment has not translated into meaningful progress. The proportion of women at every level in corporate America has hardly changed. Progress isn’t just slow. It’s stalled.”

Research into gender diversity has shown that gender inequality is not just about a pay gap, but is also about an opportunity gap. As our own Visier Insights research into Gender Equity has shown, there is a clear Manager Divide (where women are increasingly underrepresented in manager roles, compared to men) that widens right at the time when women begin to have families.

We encourage you to share the Women in the Workplace report with your corporate leaders and networks. Make the report’s recommendation your organization’s Diversity and Inclusion mantra:

“Now companies need to take more decisive action. This starts with treating gender diversity like the business priority it is, from setting targets to holding leaders accountable for results. It requires closing gender gaps in hiring and promotions, especially early in the pipeline when women are most often overlooked. And it means taking bolder steps to create a respectful and inclusive culture so women—and all employees—feel safe and supported at work.”

About the author: Visier Team

People-centered ideas and insights by the editorial team at Visier.

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