Podcast: Why Gender Diversity Matters (Even at Women’s World Banking)

February 28, 2019

Intro clip (Tom Jones):

It goes back to our philosophy that diversity across the board is key – cultural, ethnic and every type of diversity. But for us at Women’s World Banking, gender was so egregious that we said that if we really are going to practice this and sell this to our clients that we needed to start practicing it too.


Karen Miller: Welcome to the next edition of the Women’s World Banking podcast. My name is Karen Miller, and I’m pleased to be here today with my colleagues. At first, I’d like to have all my colleagues introduce themselves.

Mary Ellen Iskenderian: Hi! I’m Mary Ellen Iskenderian, President and CEO of Women’s World Banking.

Tom Jones: Tom Jones, the Chief Operating Officer at Women’s World Banking.

Mehi Mirpourian: I’m Mehi Mirpourian. I’m the Senior Data Analyst within the Women’s World Banking.

Karen Miller: Today, we’re going to talk about gender diversity but perhaps not entirely the way you might think. We hear lots of talk about the value of gender diversity but is all this talk actually changing anything? Mary Ellen, why does Women’s World Banking, in particular, believe that increasing gender diversity can improve business outcomes for financial institutions?

Mary Ellen Iskenderian: Well it’s not just something we think. There’s a lot of really good data that points to gender diversity leading to much better outcomes. McKinsey points to the fact that gender-diverse executive teams are 21 percent more likely to experience above-average profitability than those that are least diverse. But unfortunately, we also know that at the current rate of growth, which is kind of pathetic, financial services globally won’t even reach 30 percent female executive committee representation until 2048.

Karen Miller: And this isn’t unique to financial services. We see this amongst a number of different industries. But in our work to increase access and usage of financial products and services around the world for low-income women, how do we approach increasing gender diversity at our partner institutions?

Mary Ellen Iskenderian: So, at Women’s World Banking, we’re working on this issue in a number of different ways. Women’s Women Banking is an investor in women-focused financial inclusion institutions, and there, we’ve managed to put gender diversity targets into the shareholders’ agreement that we negotiate when we come in with an equity investment. In that instance, Women’s World Banking isn’t the only Board member banging their fists on the table for gender diversity, but all shareholders are in agreement that this is something that will make a stronger institution and will make their ultimate investment more valuable.

Tom Jones: You know one of the other things that we did was there was an initiative that was spearheaded with Mary Ellen and Angela Sun of Bloomberg at the time and Angela Sun was a Board member of Women’s World Banking. And what she led there was a Bloomberg Gender Equality Index and the index gives us insights into any public company here that Bloomberg reports on – that tells you the different gender dynamics of an organization so, if you’re an investor or someone else who wants to be attached to these entities, you can choose to invest in them based on that performance.

Mehi Mirpourian: And that’s true. Also, I like to add one piece of component here. What we really invest on in Women’s World Banking is to have gender-disaggregated data.

Mary Ellen Iskenderian: And we’re very excited about launching an online gender assessment tool that will allow financial service providers, but really other institutions as well, to see just how well they are attracting, recruiting, retaining, promoting women through the ranks. If they take the tool and they would like further work on this, we’d be delighted to help them. But this is an easier more accessible way for us to reach more institutions and we’re very excited about that launch. 

Karen Miller: The work with the fund and with Bloomberg’s GEI are a couple of our newer initiatives; but building gender-diverse teams has been a core part of our business for a significant part of our 40-year history. Mary Ellen, why are these programs so important?

Mary Ellen Iskenderian:  We’ve been training high potential women leaders in financial services in the emerging markets for well over a decade, and more recently we’ve started pairing them together with senior executives in those institutions. Both of them go through a really extraordinary executive management training, but I think the most interesting part of what we’re doing is they come to us with a strategic business initiative that either improves gender diversity within their organization or improves their outreach to women clients. And I think we’ve seen some of the most amazing business outcomes from those strategic business initiatives that the program participants come back with.

Tom Jones: When I think about the Women in Leadership programs to be able to witness them you can actually see a transformation that takes place within a week’s time. On day one, the voices in the room for those women were like absolutely silent. On day four and five, you couldn’t hear yourself thinking because there was so much energy and there were so many ideas and innovation coming out and so much passion about how do I take this back to the organization.

Karen Miller:  So, you know looking at the experience that we’ve had in building more gender- diverse institutions in the emerging markets and most of the discussions that we see in the media and stories and talking with our friends and colleagues and other institutions when we talk about gender diversity it tends to mean creating more opportunities for women. And so, it’s an interesting point because that’s not really the situation here at Women’s World Banking.  Tom, how do you view gender diversity here at Women’s World Banking. It’s an organization with women front and center in the name.  How do you address that as our Chief Operating Officer?

Tom Jones:  When I joined I think there was roughly 5 to 7 percent male employee participation here and Women’s World Banking. And today you know we’re at 28 percent with a goal of 30 percent, and it goes back to our philosophy that diversity across the board is key – cultural, ethnic and every type of diversity. But for us at Women’s World Banking gender was so egregious that we said that if we really are going to practice this and sell this to our clients that we needed to start practicing it too. I think recruiting is a huge hurdle for Women’s World Banking because of our name alone. And you know I’ve had conversations with people who have joined us men who have joined us in the organization and they’ve expressed that they honestly didn’t think they had a shot. That’s obviously not the case. And so, we thought about the way that we start to write our job postings, the way that we may do a blind posting out there. I think you know, in particular, Karen you and Mary Ellen are looking at opportunities to get more men out there speaking on behalf of women’s role banking because it’s such an important initiative and cause that we’re focused on as well as other organizations at this time and place that we have to heighten the advocacy that men bring to the table in these issues and demonstrate the participation.

Karen Miller: And that’s just for the staff, but thinking about the governance and the board of Women’s World Banking – how do we go about making sure that our Board is as gender diverse as possible?

Mary Ellen Iskenderian: There was about a six-month period or so where we were an all-female board of directors, and there was a lot more talk, a lot more drive to consensus. None of which is bad but even with just a few men then added to the Board when we recruited to fill some vacancies, it just felt like the richness of debate actually really improved. I’ve only appreciated having that diversity on the Board and, I guess, just leap on to something that Tom said – you know part of the reason why I’m so passionate about getting this message out is that the one thing we know about women’s empowerment, and economic growth is that it’s not a zero-sum game. When a woman is empowered, when there’s greater labor force participation in a country, what it usually means is a step change upward in growth for that country. So, the pie is not fighting over the same slice of pie it’s making the pie bigger overall. And that’s to the benefit of men, the benefit of women, children and if men can be the advocates for that view, it can just carry a passion and a resonance with it. That doesn’t always come if it’s just the women who are making that case.

Tom Jones: I think it’s important to reflect on that change process that it took even bringing men onto the Board. There was a high level of discomfort initially. At least I perceived it that way on both the male side as well as the female side. You know how do we make sure that we’re a community. How do you make sure that we have level discussions? But once you get through that, you know it’s extremely productive at this point. And what it really did for me at least in observing what was going on, was it leveraged the best of both worlds. You know I’ve come to realize that men and women tend to always get to the same decision. It’s just how we go about getting there. And when you can leverage the best of both of those processes, I think you have a stronger outcome. And it was the same thing here at Women’s World Banking amongst the staff. When it started out there was a big resistance to shifting of bringing men into the organization, especially in decision making roles. But as time has gone on, we actually have more women speaking up now saying we need to bring more men into the organization to balance this out because once you experience it, I think you really do recognize that performance.

Karen Miller: I think there is one other element here that you touched on a little bit Tom but it’s a struggle to not only build the gender diverse teams, internally at the Board level but to have those champions in the world that we work in every day which is about financial inclusion. Reflecting on our Making Finance Work from Women’s Summit that we held in New York recently, and the room was about 90 percent women. And there is a danger of that echo chamber, and how we can break through that to make sure that we are as inclusive as possible and to Mary Ellen’s point, the pie only gets bigger. So, are we missing a message here or a point that’s helping to build that broader tent?

Mehi Mirpourian: So, I think besides that if you have a gender-diverse environment the performance increases, there’s one aspect that is if you want to have financial inclusion and equality it’s not just by women, it’s like men are big obstacles in many cases the regulations. So, for me as a man who works in an environment that I encounter with women’s problem, I’m an advocate for that. I’m supporting the idea. I understand it. It has kind of become tangible for me. I think bringing more with men into organizations that care about societies, it makes it equal. And also, we need that coalition.

Karen Miller: Mehi, you know you came into this organization a little less than a year ago, and you’re a data analyst. You are the person that makes sense of the big data and analyzing how we can more effectively serve the women’s market, but it’s a hot, hot job right now. You could go anywhere to work. And so, what made Women’s World Banking so attractive?

Mehi Mirpourian: Every time that I start working in a non-profit organization, I feel that this is my land. Whenever I went to other places I just wasn’t just myself, I was an outsider. I never felt that I can be successful. However, because of my education and training that I received which was more technical, it was so difficult to find a job that I can deploy what I learned. And when I see this position is just oh look in here, and just you’re in New York. So, it was a great opportunity. But this is something really rare. I mean there are a few nonprofit organizations that they use really technical expertise. And here is really one of those few ones. And they know that what advantages it using technical people can bring for the organization. So, I was the lucky one.

Karen Miller: What else should we be doing?

Tom Jones: I think its proof at the end of the day. You know I think the work that we do allows us to demonstrate it works. We talk about the work that we’re doing with the funds, talk about the Women in Leadership program, even our own experience here, it is the proof, and we need to be sharing it. And I think this is part of that conversation.

Mary Ellen Iskenderian: I think you know I think a lot of what we’re doing we’re doing really well. I know think for example some of the men who’ve been through the Leadership Development for Innovation Program, they are probably the most eloquent in what they go back into their organizations and see for the first time. And so, I think a lot of it, as you said earlier Tom, it’s education. It’s trying to build the biggest tent to make to make our point known to as many people. I’m convinced that the business case will win over in the end. But sometimes it can seem like a hard slog. So, you’ve got to meet people at their heart as well as their pocketbook.

Karen Miller: And I think it brings up a really interesting point. You’ve touched on this about it being tangible. But to make that tent wider and more inclusive, how do we replicate that experience of seeing what inequality looks like and how we address those issues and I think that’s something for Women’s World Banking. We need to tackle and do a better job of and take that as a serious responsibility of our organization.

Tom Jones: Absolutely. I mean really looking at what the ceiling is of our strategy is thought leadership and thought leadership is about driving to the masses. It’s anyone who can influence institute change. And if we have to be that voice, let us be loud.

Karen Miller: And we have audacious goals. We want to be reaching over 20 million women by 2022. And so, the role of gender diversity in helping to make that happen, Mary Ellen, what’s your hope for that and how does this all come into play in helping us reach this goal, and you know going even further than that?

Mary Ellen Iskenderian: Well you know just bringing it back full circle in terms of you know high growth and the right ingredients in a high-growth organization, gender diversity is right up there. There’s no way Women’s World Banking is going to achieve anything close to that goal without that diversity. But I’d argue, and Tom mentioned it, it’s diversity on a much, much broader scale. I think one of the big challenges for us in the next couple of years is as we really push more of our work out to the field and we start hiring people in country. We went through a very rigorous and first-time process for Women’s World Banking of identifying priority markets. We choose those countries where more than 50 percent of the world’s unbanked women live, and we felt that that was where we could have the most impact. We should and will be hiring people in those markets to help us address these challenges at a much greater scale. So how do we make sure that the New York team and the field team work closely together, that’s really going to be a test of a different kind of diversity than I think we’ve ever had before. But I firmly believe it’s the only way we’re going to achieve our goal.

Karen Miller: Are we optimistic overall about what we see when it comes to gender diversity, not just in the United States and the issues here, but globally? Are we going to be able to tackle this?

Tom Jones: Yes.

Mary Ellen Iskenderian: Absolutely.

Mehi Mirpourian: I do agree. I mean, for example, if I want to talk about my origin Iran. So, I see really significant changes there. Nowadays, 65 percent of the university students are girls. After that what happens? You see, they become the next CEOs. It’s just it is changing.

Tom Jones: It takes time.

Mehi Mirpourian: Yes. It takes time. It is resilience, and it needs hands and hands between men and women together.

Karen Miller: I’m going to end on a lighter note. Are there any stereotypes we want to bust about working in an organization that is predominantly women? I know my personal favorite story is that the trash talking that goes on during the World Cup far exceeds any organization I’ve ever worked at, where the focus was on March Madness and so that to me was a surprise. I would not have expected at a predominantly women organization anyone else?

Mary Ellen Iskenderian:  Just how competitive everybody. We do a staff outing twice a year, and there is always some gam or competition and the level of competition. And I remember last year with the laser tag was insanely competitive. And we have a man on our team who was a sniper, I think, in the army and he did not do as well as he hoped. And was really upset when many of the other women on his team had scored higher than he had.

Tom Jones:  I’m going to go in the opposite direction. You are the stereotype that men are messy and women are neat because that’s just not true here.

Mary Ellen Iskenderian: What did you say to me yesterday, Tom? Telling me if I were one of your kids to bed without dinner like my couch in my office was such a mess.

Tom Jones: Oh yeah. Our kitchen area and everything…[Laughter]

Karen Miller: And there we go. Well I want to say thank you to my colleagues and fellow conversationalist today to touch on this issue that we know gets talked about quite a bit but we really want to focus on the solutions and how we can address this globally. And so, I am confident that Women’s World Banking will do its part and I hope for all of our listeners today that you will do your part as well. So, thank you very much. Tom, Mary Ellen, Mehi, thank you for joining us today.

Tom Jones: Thank you

Mary Ellen Iskenderian: Thank you.

Mehi Mirpourian: Thank you.