Five tips to improve number of women in senior IR positions

Oct 03, 2018
More than 80 people gathered at the Women in IR event in New York last month

Last year, IR Magazine’s Women in IR campaign sparked surprise and lively debate about how women can achieve gender equality and pay parity in the IR profession. Many readers were surprised to hear that while the IR profession has a 50/50 gender split, 67 percent of senior positions are held by men and just 33 percent by women.

One year on from the inaugural Women in IR event in New York, an audience of more than 80 IR professionals gathered to discuss practical tips and advice for IR professionals to supercharge their career, serve as a support network for their peers and colleagues, and identify up-and-coming female talent. Here we look at the top tips that emerged from the discussion.

Have a strong professional network

The evening began with remarks from Lauren Tarola, vice president of financial communications and capital markets at Edelman, who underscored the importance of building a strong and supportive professional network. ‘The deficit of women in senior roles is a call to action,’ she said. ‘It makes us think about how we can encourage women to stay in IR, how we can create opportunities for women in IR and how we can give women the experience they need to be successful. When working in IR, you may be a team of one person. That makes it even more important to come together and build relationships at events like this.’

The power of a professional network was emphasized later during the panel discussion. Margaret Ferrer, chief financial officer at Stanley Engineered Fastening, a division of Stanley Black & Decker, outlined that when she recently relocated to Maryland for a job, she needed to build a team. Her first thought was to contact two female analysts based near Maryland who had covered her previous company.

‘They knew I wasn’t going to sell them a bad opportunity,’ she said. Both women have since joined her team and one is already being considered for a promotion. ‘You never know who you might end up working with, so maintain connections,’ Ferrer added.

Have a strong personal network

Ferrer also outlined how she relied on her family to support her through her work. Three years ago her husband decided to become a stay-at-home dad to focus on the family, allowing her to focus on her career. All the panelists at the event agreed that this is becoming a more common occurrence in society.

But not everyone has a significant other who can, or is willing to, stay at home. The panel agreed that having a supportive network of family members, neighbors and team members was extremely important for managing a career; they also agreed that you shouldn’t be embarrassed to say you have a nanny!

This personal network cuts both ways. Stacie Swanstrom, executive vice president of corporate services at Nasdaq, gets a kick out of being an inspiration to her daughter. ‘It helps when your daughter can see you in a senior position. It sets an example for your children,’ she said. Ferrer, meanwhile, described how her teenage son will sit around the dinner table in the evening and help her discuss company strategy – he’s even up to speed on Asian trading rules.

Know the difference between mentors and advocates

In her closing remarks for the event, Smooch Repovich Reynolds, managing partner of the investor relations and corporate communications practice at ZRG Partners, encouraged all attendees to really spend time thinking about their career aspirations. Once you’ve homed in on those, she said, you need to identify an internal advocate network that can supplement the advice you receive from the mentors outside of your team or company.

‘Identify executives in your organization who recognize you as smart,’ Reynolds advised. ‘They will be your internal marketers and serve as proxies for your brand. The best way to get their attention is by being superior in what you do in your roles. It’s easy to be average and just punch the clock. If you’re exceptional, however, you will attract advocates and that will give your name legs in ways you could never imagine.’

Be self-aware

Ferrer stressed the importance of being self-aware and actively seeking feedback from your peers and managers. ‘You may think you’re chugging along great, but actually you [may be doing] something that really annoys people,’ she said. ‘I know I’ve been criticized for laughing too much. I was in an IR meeting and was being too casual, which bothered my CFO.’

Ferrer said she was taken aback when she first received the feedback, and that there’s a perception that women aren’t as good at taking feedback as men. But she said that this isn’t true and, by actively seeking out this type of information, it demonstrates that you are committed to self-improvement.

Think about what your company can do to embrace diversity

All three companies represented on the panel – Nasdaq, Stanley Black & Decker and Point72 Asset Management – have a diversity and inclusion officer and all three panelists stressed the importance of encouraging a company-wide culture of inclusion. This was also true at Edelman, where the Global Women’s Executive Network (Gwen) has prompted an increase from 37 percent to 48 percent of women in senior leadership positions since its launch six years ago.

Sara Vavra, senior executive and head of global macro at Point72, said companies should perhaps be thinking about additional ways to support women in the workforce. ‘We have internships for people coming out of college, but do we need to start thinking about some kind of ‘returnships’ for people who have taken time off work to raise children?’ she asked.

She said that, as someone responsible for hiring on her team, she’s beginning to think about taking on more personal risk when hiring individuals who have a good resumé but may have taken some time out. Kelly Weigel, head of marketing and client services at Cowen, who moderated the panel, mentioned that this is something she is considering as well.

For women who have taken time out of their career for whatever reason, Vavra encouraged being creative with getting back into the workforce. ‘You may need to make a lateral move, take a junior position or think about going into a different industry role,’ she said. ‘You have to be open-minded and seek out people who are also open-minded.’

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