By Ray Birch
RALEIGH, N.C.—Ruth Barnes believes that women who rise to the top of organizations are often backed by strong people at home and in their daily lives.
Barnes, secretary on the board of directors at the $2-billion Local Government FCU here, said it’s certainly been true in her own case, saying her career got a boost from her mother’s good advice.
“The best piece of advice I received in my life was from my working mother, who told me that I could do and be anything that I wanted and achieve whatever my dreams were,” said Barnes. “There have been vast advancements in women taking the reins in leadership. However, even today it requires the immense support of family and employers to make the path to leadership available and obtainable to women.”
With Women’s History Month being celebrated during March, Barnes spoke with CUToday.info as part of a series on female leaders within the credit union movement.
Barnes said another person who had a big impact on her career was a supervisor from one of her first jobs.
“I worked at a university that provided staff with a benefit of taking courses on your own time, free of charge,” she explained. “My supervisor not only encouraged me to take advantage of the benefit, but made it possible for me to take classes during the workday. He saw potential in me and realized how important it was for me to get a degree. I feel it is due to his guidance and support that I have achieved so many of my goals.”
More Attention, But…
Barnes agrees issues facing women in the workforce are receiving much greater attention today than several years ago, but that’s still insufficient.
“Yes, there have been great strides made in this direction. Yet, there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done,” Barnes said. “The commitment from employers to invest in a diverse leadership team is inherent to the success of a woman’s ability to advance into a leadership position.”
She acknowledged legal requirements and regulations have also been enacted that have played a role in changing workplace attitudes toward and treatment of women.
“Today, with so many women in the workforce and with women stepping into leadership roles, we are seeing even more advances,” Barnes explained. “I believe the women who have been pioneers in leadership have had an enormous impact on moving forward the path to leadership for other women. Their experience has had a significant influence on inspiring and preparing the next generation of women leaders.”
Glass Ceiling Remains
Despite the efforts of women and others to remove roadblocks for female workers, Barnes believes the glass ceiling remains a reality.
“There are more choices for women today in their desired paths. However, there are still examples of a glass ceiling,” Barnes said, noting she has experienced the roadblock herself.
“However, in my 35 years of volunteer leadership at LGFCU, I have not found this to be true. The original board of directors included women. In fact, women were instrumental in our receiving a charter. One of our first board chairman was a women. I was chair for five years and several other women have been chair. LGFCU has always trusted, appreciated, valued and encouraged the leadership capacity of women.
“Local Government FCU has over $2 billion in assets and has always included women in its volunteer and staff leadership teams,” Barnes added.
Nonetheless, Barnes said she has experienced at least one “obvious” example of sexism during an incident she experienced in a role held outside of LGFCU.
“It was when I served as a member of a decision-making team,” she recalled. “It was during a press conference that my colleague, because I would not agree with his opinion, said I was ‘just like a woman’ to vote against him.”
In addition to board secretary, Barnes is chairman of the asset liability committee at LGFCU.
“And I am a subscriber and board member of the new Civic Federal Credit Union,” said Barnes, referring to the credit union chartered in 2018 in North Carolina.
In addition to her work at the credit union, Barnes is a member of the Global Women’s Leadership Network. “I began my service with LGFCU in 1984 by serving on the supervisory committee and was its chairman from 1985-1990. I was elected to serve on the LGFCU board in 1990 and have served in all board officer positions, including five years as chairman.”
Barnes retired in 1998 as finance director and information system officer from the Wake County ABC board and started a second full-time career in real estate, earning her broker’s license in 1978.
Evolving Leadership Style
Barnes said she has evolved as a leader over the years, and so has her leadership style.
“Early on in leadership, you are learning how to make your voice heard and how to get your point across,” she explained. “As you mature and become more secure in your leadership ability, you want to help others achieve the same success, through mentoring and leading by example. Confidence and self-assurance bring a unique perspective to the table, and the ability to always be candid and transparent helps you advance.”
While some within the movement believe male-dominated boards can limit the advancement of females within credit unions, Barnes disagrees.
“From my perspective, as an LGFCU and Civic board member, there have always been opportunities for women,” Barnes said. “I have found that to be true of the credit union industry as a whole. I know of many mostly male boards that have chosen women to run the credit union.”
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