Work together to empower women

By Teresa Freeborn, President and CEO, Xceed Financial Credit Union

This op-ed was originally published in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

“Haven’t you heard? Women aren’t CEOs.”

I can’t remember just how many times I heard those words at the outset of my career, but I can assure you that it was all too common. Nobody is saying that now, at least not in polite company, and Women’s History Month is a good time to reflect on the inequalities of the not-too-distant past and to celebrate where progress has been made.

The finance sector, where I make my living, remains among the absolute worst for women who aspire to leadership roles. Just 2.1 percent of CEOs are female. However, among financial cooperatives — which is what credit unions are — an average of 29 percent of CEOs across the country are women.

While that’s a long way from the 50/50 gender balance I’d like to see, it’s evident that credit unions are continuing to embrace the progressive values set forth by the cooperative business model. These principles have empowered women and continue to combat the prejudicial executive landscape we see in much of corporate America.

My career provides a good example of how the values of cooperative businesses can propel women on a path for success. Few of us, male or female, are born with skills for negotiating, presenting, networking and other key markers for leadership. I wasn’t. I had to learn those things.

Throughout my career, I benefited tremendously from mentoring and support from some very smart credit union leaders – almost all of them men. I am indebted to those gender-blind men, who believed that I could amount to something in this business.

Mentors are essential for anyone who wants a seat in the C suite. But they were especially important for me, since I took a non-traditional path to the CEO chair.

Most financial services CEOs, male and female, have backgrounds in accounting, finance, or lending. While I have the same MBA they do, like many women of my generation, I began my career as a teller. I worked in a variety of different roles in credit unions before finally getting an opportunity to take on positions of leadership on the marketing side of the business.

It took some vision on the part of Xceed Financial’s Board of Directors – many of them associated with leading Rochester employers, such as Xerox Corporation – to make a doubly non-traditional choice for CEO, a female and a marketer.

The success we’ve enjoyed in the years since then has been gratifying, and I continue to be inspired by their example to pay it forward to promising young women, and to encourage others to do the same.

I’m also inspired by the National Cooperative Business Association CLUSA International which is leading by example in appointing Judy Ziewacz as its first female president and CEO. The appointment earlier this year was a perfect way for the organization to celebrate its centennial anniversary.

The paths that Judy and I took to become leaders in our respective sectors were very different, but both of us were helped by the values championed by the cooperative movement.

While it’s clear that progress is being made, it is my hope that in my lifetime we’ll celebrate a Women’s History Month when women and men are true equals in the workplace, and discussions about gender and equality are quaint relics of a bygone era.