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The state of women in the credit union movement

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Women haven’t yet cracked the glass ceiling of American politics, but plenty have done so in the credit union movement. But the top spot at some of the largest CUs in the country remains largely a boys’ club.

According to “Women in Leadership: Obstacles and Opportunities,” a report from the Filene Research Institute, 53 percent of all credit union CEOs are female and 70 percent of CU employees in the U.S. are women – numbers that far exceed other industries in terms of female representation. By comparison, only 4 percent of CEOs at S&P 500 Companies are women, according to Feigen Advisors’ 2015 New CEO Report – and that’s an increase from 3 percent in 2006.

While these figures suggest women are making tremendous progress in the credit union movement, the numbers are slightly misleading. For one thing, female CEOs are most commonly found at smaller institutions (below $50 million in assets) and the corner office and board of directors are increasingly male-dominated further up the asset ladder.

According to Filene’s research, fully two-thirds (66 percent) of credit unions with assets below $50 million employ women as CEOs, while at CUs of $100 million to $500 million, only about one in five CEOs is female. At larger credit unions ($500 million and above), only about one in eight CEOs is a woman. And only 14 percent of CEOs at credit unions with $1 billion or more in assets are female.

From Dhaka to Des Moines
Shazia Manus is CEO of Iowa-based payments processor TMG, but she previously served as the chief executive at Greater Iowa Credit Union, a $403 million-asset institution based in Ames, Iowa.

Born in Bangladesh, Manus forms her own unique minority within the credit union movement -- she is a South Asian and a female CEO.

Arriving from Bangladesh as a young woman (after having studied at Dhaka University), she matriculated at Iowa State University in Ames in 1997 and received a Bachelor’s degree in economics.

She eventually became the CEO of Greater Iowa CU, where she engineered a financial turnaround and made a number of acquisitions while earning a number of other awards and honors during her career thus far.

Manus commented that some professional women, who are otherwise highly educated and qualified to run financial institutions (including credit unions), may shy away from such responsibilities for various reasons: they find it difficult to establish a comfortable 50-50 balance between family life and career; and they tend to be more “self-critical” than men.

“Perhaps some of them also lack confidence and remain hesitant in seeking out more responsibility and power,” she added.

Also, women who are poised to climb the corporate ladder – in any industry – often lack male mentors and sponsors who might provide them with a roadmap to the top along the way.

Whatever the reason, corporate boards and C-level positions at many financial institutions remain male-dominated, even in the second decade of the 21st century.

However, this under-representation is likely to change in the coming years.

Consider that more and more women are receiving college degrees and entering the workforce at higher rates than their male peers. According to the Census Bureau, in 2014, 32 percent of all women in the US had received a bachelor’s degree, versus 31.9 percent of men – the first time that women surpassed men in this category.

But this long-developing demographic trend has yet to result in heavy female presence at the top of corporate hierarchies. Manus also pointed out that female undergraduates remain under-represented in finance and business-related curricula. (They also lag behind in the STEM disciplines as well).

Indeed, Census Bureau data indicates that more men than women are attaining advanced degrees – although this gap is gradually closing.

Meanwhile, on the ground at credit unions, it may take a while for women to really grab the horns of power – even as their overall numbers in the industry and professional/academic qualifications continue to grow.

“At credit unions, women often take entry-level jobs with fewer opportunities for advancement," Manus said. “Some might rise to mid-level positions after several years of working, but few make it to the executive suite.”

Dennis Dollar, a former NCUA chairman and now a credit union consultant in Alabama, is optimistic about the future of women in the industry.

“I [have seen] the number of female CEOs at larger credit unions significantly growing over the past five years and fully expect that trend to continue,” he told Credit Union Journal.

Pointing out that more than 40 percent of credit union CEOs will reach their retirement age within the next five years, Dollar believes that female senior executives, many of whom have already moved up within the ranks, are positioned for a growing number of those CEO slots.

“The female leadership ranks in the credit union community are full of some incredible talent, and I believe we’ll continue to see more of it land in the corner office,” he asserted.

The best state for female CU CEOs?
While men still occupy the majority of the CEO spots within the credit union movement, there are geographic pockets where women have been particularly successful In Maine, for example, nearly half (46 percent) of the state’s 58 credit unions have female CEOs.

“In Maine, our landscape appears different from the national trend,” said John Murphy, president of the Maine Credit Union League. “Many of these individuals have ascended to their positions after working at their credit unions for a number of years and holding a variety of positions that enhance their experience.”

Murphy added that Maine is fortunate to have a “high number of quality credit union leaders who are females and have a proven record of performance at their credit union, resulting in their promotion to CEO.”

Maine-based credit unions led by female CEOs include Diana Winkley at the $33 million Capital Area FCU of Augusta; Jennifer M Hogan at the $50 million Community CU of Lewiston; Karen L Greenleaf at the $86 million Franklin-Somerset FCU of Skowhegan, among numerous others.

‘A big challenge’
Across the country, Maria Martinez offers another example of a minority female who has risen to the top in the industry.

As the chief executive officer of chief of Border FCU, a $143 million institution based in Del Rio, Texas, Martinez noted that senior-level positions in the banking industry have mainly been held by men for ages.

“Women are changing that trend slowly, but it continues to be a big challenge,” she told CU Journal. “Being a CEO is very demanding and it can be intimidating when you consider the big responsibility of the position. If a woman doesn’t have the support of her family to take on this responsibility, especially if the woman is married and has kids, then the position becomes almost impossible to fulfill and to be successful.”

As for the paucity of women at the larger-asset credit unions, Martinez commented that the bigger the institution, the more that is demanded of the CEO. “However, if we surround ourselves with a great team and good family support, we are bound to succeed at any level,” she added. There is an open door to these executive positions, but we must be willing to commit for the challenge. We must not be intimidated by anyone because as women we are very powerful.”

State-chartered CUs succeeding
Another powerful woman in the credit union movement is Lucy Ito, president and chief executive officer of National Association of State Credit Union Supervisors (who formerly served as executive vice president and chief operations officer of the California and Nevada Credit Union Leagues). According to Ito, women are playing an increasingly dominant role in the state-chartered credit union system.

“I… expect more women to be named CEOs at large credit unions in the future, primarily because of the proven successes of women leaders, for example within the state system,” she said.

Among the NASCUS credit union membership, for example, Ito cited several women leading large state-chartered credit unions, such as: Cathie Tierney, Community First ($2.6 billion assets, based in Appleton, Wisc.); Donna Bland, The Golden 1 ($10.4 billion, Sacramento, Calif.); Kim Sponem, Summit ($2.6 billion, Madison, Wisc.); Shruti Miyashiro, Orange County's ($1.4 billion, Santa Ana, Calif.); and Julie Kirsch, Meriwest ($1.4 billion, San Jose, Calif.), among others.

“There is also significant leadership by women at the advocacy level, too, among them Diana Dykstra, CEO of the California and Nevada Credit Union Leagues and Caroline Willard, incoming CEO at Cornerstone League,” Ito added.

“And there is strong representation among women within the ranks of the state credit union supervisors – including the chairman of our association (Mary Ellen O’Neill, Conn.) – and four of eight of our regulator board members are women. That representation is echoed on our Credit Union Advisory Council, chaired by a woman (Patty Idol, N.C.), where three out of eight members are women.”

Ito cautioned that “certainly there is always room for improvement; but in places like the state system, women are playing a significant role right now.”

What’s next?
Patty Briotta, former director of public relations at National Association of Federally-Insured Credit Unions, commented that the under-representation of women CEOs has been well-documented in all kinds of businesses.

“Recent reports indicate that the trend may be changing,” she said. ”I am optimistic that the time will come soon that more women have more opportunities to lead in upper management positions in credit unions.”

Border FCU’s Martinez also expects to witness more women rise in their credit unions careers.

“Today the women working in credit unions outnumber the men; therefore, if those women prepare themselves to take on executive positions within our industry, we should see more women CEOs in the future,” she observed. “With the right education, experience and a determination to serve others, women can excel in our movement. We are passionate about our industry. And with passion, everything is possible.”

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