Reflections on the Rise of Woman in Corporate America

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We set out to determine whether we are experiencing the tip of further transformative progress for women within the corporate landscape amid a sea of media headlines underscoring gender inequality and other workplace violations.  Simply put, is the next chapter of the Woman’s Rights Movement being written?

From our country’s founding, women were considered dependents of men, lacking the power to vote, originate contracts, or own real estate, among other things.  It would take more than 70 years before the first call to action emerged in the mid-19th century when Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized the first convention for women’s rights in Seneca Falls, New York.  Under her leadership, a Declaration of Sentiments and Rights was published and commanded improved laws regarding equality of women. Attendees argued that women deserved equal wages and professional opportunities in law, medicine, education, and the ministry and most importantly the right to vote.

The resolutions to the Declaration of Sentiments and Rights received unanimous approval at the convention, except the ability to vote.  Amid widespread ridicule originating from the media, advocacy for suffrage for females would continue for another 70 years before the movement ultimately prevailed in 1919.  Over the following 70 years, two Equal Rights Amendments were proposed but failed; Nevertheless, their proposals signaled a shift in the perception of equality for women in the U.S.

Times are indeed changing for women and at an increasing rate.  According to The Economist, women are becoming educated more and more in marketable high wage-earning disciplines. The report goes on to state that in 1966, 40 percent of the women who enrolled in college were pursuing degrees in education, while only two percent were pursuing degrees in business and management.  Today, those numbers have evolved markedly with 12 percent of women majoring in education and 50 percent majoring in business and management.

Women today are enjoying the bequest of generations of females who sacrificed to promote equal rights.  Interestingly though, young generations of females in corporate America are blind to the efforts of their foremothers altogether.  We inquired with today’s up and coming young women in business ranging in ages from 21 to 40 and most had no familiarity whatsoever with the existence of the Woman’s Rights Movement and took for granted the opportunity market.  By contrast, all businesswoman respondents ages 50 to 60 had a working understanding of the movement.  Also in striking contrast, each respondent in the younger age band identified the ability to secure a female mentor a key strategy to their upward mobility, whereas the 50 to 60 year old age band were unable to cite a single woman mentor in their professional career, conveying that females were altogether absent from management as they ascended the ranks.

Mrs. MaryJo Finocchiaro, executive vice president and CFO for BRE Hotels & Resorts, who oversees nearly 200 Blackstone owned hotels and resorts nationwide, expressed that her experiences coincided with the survey results from the 50 to 60-year-old age bracket respondents.  She said that women may not always realize how poised for success they are in leadership roles, but their potential and abilities are undeniable.  She added soft skills and emotional intelligence are key competitive advantages for women in business.  A recent study published by Korn Ferry Hay Group, a global consulting firm, found that women outperform men in 11 of 12 key emotional intelligence competencies. Some of these competencies include emotional self-awareness, empathy, conflict management, adaptability and teamwork.  This enables females to have a strong understanding of what drives and motivates people, and how to acknowledge different people for their performance.  Women also make great leaders because we are natural caregivers and multitaskers, she continued.  Women decisively respond to multiple concurrent problems with timely solutions.  Society taught me as a girl to smile, work hard, be kind and help others, and get all A’s while boys were taught to play tough and aim high.  But rather than feel constrained by social norms, I embraced my upbringing and leveraged it fully over my more than thirty-year career,” she said.

She has thrived as a financial executive in the C-Suite alongside the most successful and powerful businessmen arguably this country has observed in our modern era.  She began her career at Price Waterhouse in the mid 1980’s and went on to flourish in finance chief capacities for operating companies led by high profile, self-made CEO’s. While she admits part of that success may be a stroke of luck by being at the right place at the right time, she attributes more to a mutual admiration and respect among her and her male counterparts to recognize what we each brought to earn a seat at the table.

She attributes her rise in corporate America to five traits: strong intellect, tireless work ethic, high moral code, humility and the desire to help others while also naming one external condition: the existence of accomplished men who became mentor figures and her champions in the workplace.   At the same time, she recognizes another important element to her success is that she postponed becoming a mother to now three children until her mid-30’s, enabling her to climb to the C-Suite multiple times pre-motherhood.  She also credits having significant household support from her husband that alleviated the high demands of both work and life that many women combat.

Further, in contrast to men whom she viewed as career-centric aiming to maximize their financial return from their professional work, she viewed her career more holistically. Happiness with the work she undertakes has always ranked ahead of the monetary reward.  Though she also acknowledged that she has been less comfortable asking for compensation recognition than men during her career.

To operate with intellect, a tireless work ethic, high moral code, humility and the desire to help others.  These are timeless traits that will get you everywhere.

-MaryJo Finocchiaro, Executive VP and CFO

When asked what advice she would give her daughters as they prepare to join the workforce, she said, “I would tell them to adopt the same five traits that helped me rise through my career because they are timeless and will get your everywhere.” To operate with intellect, a tireless work ethic, high moral code, humility and the desire to help others.  These are timeless traits that will get you everywhere.  Seek out accomplished men in addition to women to be influential sponsors of your fine work.  Men more often tend to be risk takers, demonstrate high levels of self-confidence, and self-advocate for their interests. Even though women will be represented by 50 percent of the workforce when you begin your career, the road to the top will narrow considerably and these traits commonplace to men will complement what comes already natural to you and see you shatter the glass ceiling once and for all.

Unquestionably, the next chapter towards women equality is well underway.