By Ray Birch
SEATTLE—Kathryn Davis admits to “feeling like a unicorn” at many business meetings she attends due to the absence of women.
Davis, president and CEO of BALANCE, a nationwide financial education and coaching firm, is hopeful that feeling will someday subside as she is joined by more women at the conference table.
“While it’s definitely gotten better, there are still so many issues that women in leadership face on a regular basis,” said Davis. “We still make up such a small fraction of executive and board roles in large organizations. I personally feel like a unicorn most days; there is no one else that looks like me at any business meeting I attend outside my organization.”
But Davis said she remains optimistic.
“I know the world looks different for me because of the amazing women who came before me. I replaced a long-time female CEO, so I know when my board hired me they didn’t see gender, they saw the best person for the job,” Davis said. “I also see the example that is being set for children today and I know that at least in my household my sons and daughter don’t see gender roles at all, so that makes me very hopeful for what the next several generations might do with the examples they are seeing.”
With Women’s History Month being celebrated last month, Davis spoke with CUToday.info as part of a series on female leaders within the credit union movement.
An Example in California
Even with gender equality receiving increased attention, in part from the #MeToo movement, Davis is still split on whether the issue of equality in the workplace for women is truly receiving the emphasis it deserves.
“I know good work on diversity and inclusion is still happening, but I suspect if we would be at an equal level already in the workplace, we wouldn’t be talking about it anymore or have the need to have initiatives focused on it,” she said. “My home state of California is very progressive and I think continues to look for opportunity to pave the way for women.”
She pointed out that last fall California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, signed into law a mandate that by 2021 all publicly traded companies with headquarters in the state are required to have two to three female directors out of a board of five, or face financial penalties.
“It will be interesting to see how those companies go about complying with that or if it will get hung up in litigation,” said Davis. “I’ve personally already heard about several local tech companies planning to fight the mandate. I wonder if they even know where to source female board members. Imagine if the NCUA passed a requirement that 50% of (a credit union’s) board had to be female. I wonder how many credit unions would be scrambling to fill the requirement?”
Help from Social Media & GWLN
While social media has its critics, Davis said it also deserves credit for amping up attention to women’s issues.
“The subject has definitely become more public with the increase in social media,” she said. “There’s also less tolerance for bad behavior, so I think it gets flagged quicker and there are also consequences. I think more women are sharing their stories, too, around how they got into their role and the journey to get there. There seems to be more transparency around the struggles of women in leadership, so I think the honesty has definitely evolved and that’s been helpful.”
Davis, as have others in this CUToday.info series, credited the work of the Global Women’s Leadership Network (GWLN) for breaking new ground for women.
“I think there is really great momentum around women being in leadership roles. GWLN has done a lot to promote that and in particular has done an excellent job of not just making it a female issue, but a people issue,” Davis said. “Men have been very involved in GWLN as well and have been instrumental in opening doors for those of us involved in promoting female leadership.”
The Glass Ceiling
But Davis tempers the good news around the opening of doors by adding she believes the glass ceiling remains in place, even if women are finding better opportunities today than in years past. She said she has encountered roadblocks in her own career due to her gender.
“I feel fortunate to be in my position and have gained great support personally and professionally from both men and women equally, but I still look around the room and it’s predominantly men in CEO positions,” she said. “On my journey to becoming a CEO I lost out many times to a male candidate and not always because they were more qualified than me. I think a few times I just wasn’t in that club and they didn’t want to invite me to the table. There were also times where the male candidate simply had more experience and was the most qualified candidate. In those cases, I don’t feel like I didn’t get a fair chance.”
‘Not Easy to Do’
But those instances did cause Davis to be more aggressive in asking for opportunities and asking for new job responsibilities so she could bolster her skills.
“This isn’t easy to do for anyone, but I think women just aren’t naturally wired that way. I also think that women sometimes exit themselves out because they think they can’t juggle a family and demanding career,” she said. “For me, personally, I always figured out how to make that happen, but it isn’t always easy.”
Davis said sound advice from good mentors plays an important role in careers, including the best advice she has been given.
“Don’t ever give up—just keep showing up. Does it matter if it takes you five, 10 or even 20 years to get where you’re trying to go? That advice came from my husband, who clearly saw how frustrated I had become at applying for CEO jobs and being rejected,” Davis said.
‘Not the Same for Everyone’
For a brief period of time, before she was selected for her current position in leading BALANCE, Davis said she wondered if the CEO role wasn’t meant for her, and took a break from looking for top positions.
“My husband’s advice is still in my head today when I get impatient with things I’m trying to accomplish. Everyone is on their own journey and on their own timeframe,” she said. “I think we need to be focused on our own paths of success. It doesn’t look the same for everyone.”
Davis said she sees “exciting times” ahead for women.
“The world continues to evolve every day and I think men and women are stepping into new roles both personally and professionally,” she said. “I do think we’ll see more female executives and CEOs and we’ll also see more female board members. I’m not sure how long it will take us to get to a 50/50 split, but we’re headed there. I know I’ll be helping to open those doors.”
More in this series: