Imagine a world free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination, where differences are valued and celebrated, and all genders are equal.
This is the dream behind International Women’s Day (IWD) for 2022. This day is about celebrating the achievements of women, working towards gender equality and encouraging everyone to think about ways to break down all forms of bias.
Historically, credit unions have been leaders in gender equality. We were the first financial institutions to lend to women in their own names in 1961 and, here in Alberta, more than 40% of credit union senior leaders are women.
For IWD, we want to celebrate the achievement of women from across the credit union system and highlight some of the challenges – and opportunities – that exist to further #BreaktheBias within financial services industry.
We interviewed Amy Gertsma, VP Centralized Services at Encompass Credit Union, Cindy Bennett, Chief Operations Officer at ABCU Credit Union and Michelle Belland, Chief Transformation Officer at Servus Credit Union and member of the Board of Directors for Alberta Central (the central banking facility for Alberta’s credit unions) to get their perspectives on bias, breaking down barriers and to share their words of wisdom for the next generation.
Whether you’re a small business owner, people manager or senior-level leader, you should know what it means to encourage gender diversity at your organization, so read on for ideas!
Q1. The theme for International Women’s Day 2022 is “Break the Bias”. Have you experienced bias (conscious or unconscious) in your career? What did you do or wish you’d done to address it?
Amy: I have been in the credit union system for 25 years and was in insurance before that. Early in my career I did observe some bias, primarily due to the fact that at that time senior positions were not held by many women. I don’t know that that this was necessarily a conscious choice, or if it simply was a sign of the times.
I have been very fortunate in the system because I have been mentored by men in leadership positions who provided me with opportunities to grow and move into the different roles. My mentors encouraged me to prove myself and then rewarded me with more responsibilities and higher-level positions.
Eventually things did shift and there were more women sitting at the leadership table. I believe this had to do with Encompass Credit Union’s philosophy of promoting from within. And although it took some time, when the structure of our leadership team did change and a new position was available, I was able to move smoothly into that role.
Cindy: Yes, throughout my career there have been times that I have been on the receiving end of unconscious bias. While it hasn’t affected my drive to succeed, it has brought challenges and disappointment at times, specifically from a career progression perspective.
So what did I do? I raised two strong independent daughters who are in their own way making a difference in the world. My oldest daughter is a Branch Manager in the financial services industry.
And what do I wish I had done? I wish I would have become a mentor sooner in my career. Young women need positive role models and support in their lives to be able to visualize themselves in senior roles.
Michelle: I have absolutely experienced bias. Too many times to count. I handled it by understanding the environment, managing my expectations and applying my creativity and ingenuity to still succeed by being very clear about my capabilities and where they could best apply. I consciously chose to avoid focusing on the challenges that exist in the present-day patriarchy, because there is also significant opportunity that generations of women before us did not experience.
Q2. Fields such as financial services, engineering, science and technology have been known to experience issues attracting and retaining women. What or who made the difference for you that you wanted to stay in/join the industry?
Amy: I joined the industry because it was an opportunity for me. I started with Encompass as a casual, part-time teller, but never actually worked on a casual basis because when I was hired, there was a banking system conversion underway and they needed people. So I was able to take on that role, learn the new system and then branch off into other project work.
I will say it is important to hire for attitude and leaders need to be prepared to teach the skills. If you want to move forward, regardless of gender, you have to have to be prepared to put yourself out there and take on work. You cannot say “that’s not my job” or “I don’t know to do that” – you must show initiative.
“Hire for attitude. Leaders need to be prepared to teach the skills.” – Amy Gertsma
Cindy: My mom. Tragically she become a widow at a very young age, having to raise four young children at a time when women predominantly stayed at home. She learned to drive, manage the finances and be both a mom and dad to her seven children. This was a huge sacrifice on her part for the best interests of her family. Based on her values, hard work and commitment, I always knew I could achieve anything I put that same effort into.
Michelle: The specific organization’s culture and the virtues of the cooperative business model were the difference makers in keeping me deeply engaged in the financial services industry. I seek values alignment and a purpose that resonates deeply. Having found that in the financial cooperative sector is what retains me.
Q3. What is one thing leaders can do to limit or break down barriers for women who want to work in financial services?
Amy: One of the biggest benefits of working in the system is that the smaller size allows people to become involved in areas beyond their credit union.
One thing leaders can do is encourage people at all levels to become involved in the provincial and national system and be exposed to other credit unions and Centrals and learn about how the system functions. This increases your scope of knowledge and understanding of the system but also expands your network.
I think credit unions are good examples of breaking the bias. There are a lot of credit unions with a good percentage of women on their leadership teams and a lot of women in key positions across the system, both in Alberta and across Canada. I would say that we don’t hire based on gender; it is recognized that we hired based on who can do the best job.
Cindy: To limit or break down barriers in financial services, leaders need to empower other women and be available and willing to support their career journey. Mentorship takes time and effort, but it can be extremely rewarding. As a female leader, it is an amazing opportunity to give back to a system that has been hugely supportive. We can even learn a thing or two along the way if we let ourselves be vulnerable to the next level of talent.
“Empower other women. Be available and willing to support their career journey.” – Cindy Bennett
Michelle: Encourage women to be excruciatingly clear about their unique “zone of genius”. It’s big work, but game-changing. Once they’re clear, relentlessly scan the environment to find where they can authentically lend their genius. The industry needs very energized employees given the impending disruption. Only if individuals are contributing from the deep well of their uniqueness will superior outcomes emerge.
Q4. What was the best piece of career advice you received that you want to share with the next generation of women?
Amy: Take that opportunity and don’t be afraid to fail.
If you are provided with a chance to take something on, even if it’s outside your wheelhouse or job description or it is brand new to you, it doesn’t mean you can’t do it. Be open to learning and take on those challenges that can become opportunities. Don’t be afraid to fail and admit your failures and learn from them. Be humble and accountable but be ready to take on opportunity without fear.
Cindy: Speak up! Don’t be afraid to exercise your voice, be courageous and trust that your experience and competence are what defines your success.
Michelle: Be your authentic self unequivocally, unapologetically and fully. If the environment in which you’re attempting to monetize your skills demands that you change significantly, you’re in the wrong place. Move on.
“Be your authentic self unapologetically. If the environment demands that you change, move on.” – Michelle Belland
To support International Women’s Day, Alberta Central has made donations to the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters and the Alberta Network of Immigrant Women. If you are able to do so, consider a donation to a female-focused charity near you!