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Women are redefining leadership in male-dominated industries

Jan 28, 2021 | RBC Wealth Management


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From finance to construction, sectors historically led by men are benefiting from a female perspective.

Woman wearing a hard hat in a factory

Jessie Houlihan is used to being the only woman in the room, but she doesn't see it as a disadvantage: it's her superpower.

As the president of Stahl Construction, Houlihan is among the women who have moved into male-dominated sectors in larger numbers nationwide.1 Women are changing the definition of leadership with the strengths, skills and perspectives they bring to the table. The 2020 Fortune 500 list2 revealed a record high of 37 female CEOs, including Mary Barra of General Motors and Beth Ford of Land O'Lakes, some of the first female C-suiters in two industries heavily dominated by men.

For Houlihan, who now serves as the lead contact for Stahl's clients and partners, redefining leadership began in her earliest days at the company, which followed successful runs at technology and international environmental consulting firms. After joining Stahl, she started by interviewing clients, design partners and every single employee to assess the company's strengths and weaknesses. At the time, she was in her 20s and pregnant.

“There are barriers, for sure, when you don't look or sound like the other people in your seat,” Houlihan says. “But that can also be an opportunity to evolve someone's perspective. I'm not someone who gets easily offended if people don't understand why I'm doing the work that I am. I've always taken that as a chance to demonstrate excellence and, perhaps, change the way they see women in leadership.”

Houlihan used the collective wisdom she gathered to put together a five-year plan for change in an industry not known for forward-looking ideas. Her strategies yielded not just economic success for Stahl, but a broader vision for positive impact, including projects like the zero-waste living building project they completed this year.

“I believe diversity of thought leads to better outcomes,” Houlihan says. “Perpetuating the same thinking for the same audience when your actual client base and the world is more diverse every day is a recipe for failure.”

There are still not many female mentors for Houlihan to look to in her field, so she's collected role models and mentors in other industries and geographic regions that she admires for different reasons.

“Ultimately, my guiding force has never come from looking towards mentorship or finding someone else who has done what I want to do,” she says. “It has been born of the simple practice of listening to my internal compass and asking myself how I can show up as the fullest expression of myself and my purpose through the work at hand.”

She encourages the same from her team.

“I want people to show up as their whole selves – their dreams, strengths, magic all come out when we honor their whole being and align their path with an integrated vision. In a world that says success looks like execution alone, we've devalued humans, even men who are conditioned to disconnect from their emotions, and it is a shame for all.”

Women look at the whole picture

Kristen Kimmell  is one of only a handful of women leading recruiting in the male-dominated industry of wealth management. head of Advisor Recruiting and Field Marketing for RBC Wealth Management-U.S., she's made it her mission to increase female representation across the board. Since 2017, female branch and complex directors at RBC has doubled and Kimmell hopes to build on that.

Having more women in the company's ranks is critical to RBC's clients: Only about one-quarter of financial advisors are women, but studies have shown 70 percent of women want a female advisor. Diversity matters at the leadership level, too. “I do think women lead differently,” Kimmell says. “That's why it's important that you have people of different genders and different viewpoints at the table.”

Kimmell says women leaders tend to understand not only the logical components of making big decisions but the emotional ones, too. “If you're launching a product or service, you can logically say what it is, but how do you appeal to people emotionally, and where does that fit in with what their needs are?” she says. “It's when you have their emotional buy-in that you really get people to respond.”

At the start of her career in finance, there were not many women in leadership, though Kimmell did have one strong female mentor that encouraged her professional growth. “Seeing the success and the qualities that she brought to that role, including her ability to make connections across the organization and connect different parts of the strategy, was incredibly helpful,” she says.

Kimmell's experience is reflected in research cited in the Harvard Business Review,3 which found that “when women are exposed to powerful female role models, they are more likely to endorse the notion that women are well suited for leadership roles.”

In recent years, Kimmell tested this concept during a Q&A session at a conference for the Women's Association of Financial Advisors, an RBC Wealth Management employee resource group. She took the mic and urged any of the financial advisors who were even considering a leadership role in the company to speak with her or their manager. Before the conference ended, six women had stepped forward.

“You might look at my career and say 'Wow,' but I'm embarrassed that I sat back many times and waited and waited to be asked to take a role,” Kimmell says. “We've got to get out there and empower women to raise their hands and say 'I am interested in this. I would like to learn more. I would like to try this.'”

Women bring a diversity of skills

Elizabeth Miller planned to be a cardiologist, but while in medical school she was captivated by the complexity of critical care. Today she's a pulmonologist and medical director for the Intensive Care Unit at Methodist Hospital in suburban Minneapolis. It treats complex cases, including COVID-19 patients, and others who need ventilators.

Miller and her team of nine—seven of whom are women—are a rarity in the field of critical care.4 She suspects one reason for that disparity may be due to the unpredictability of the schedule, making for a difficult work-life balance. “In the ICU, you can't predict everything because people are really, really sick,” she says. “So you might not make it to dinner or you might not make it to the soccer game.”

Miller is part of a workgroup in the Twin Cities mentoring the next generation of critical care female physicians. It includes training rotations at her hospital, as well as guidance on how they can land their first job and negotiate salary and time off.

Because she has the skills and expertise to take care of the sickest COVID-19 patients, Miller works 12- to 16-hour days when she's serving in the intensive care unit, compared with the usual eight to 10.One of her team members had eight patients die in one week.It's a heavier lift right now,” she says.

Women in critical care—and medicine in general—bring a lot of needed compassion and empathy to their roles in dealing with both patients and their families, she says.

“Part of what we do in critical care is save people's lives. But the other part is giving people a good end of their life, too,” Miller says. “It takes a lot of conversations with families. And that's not something that every critical care doctor has as a skill.”

While Miller doesn't usually experience pushback as a woman in her leadership role, she did have a patient's family ask to speak with a male doctor. She explained to them she had the same specialty. “I didn't say this at the time, but I'm actually his boss.”

Originally written by Mpls.St.Paul Magazine in collaboration with RBC Wealth Management.

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