Hammering the Glass Ceiling: Women Must Advocate for Each Other to Make Permanent Change

by Rita E. Garwood Vol. 48 No. 7 2022
The dearth of women in top leadership positions continues to exist in most companies. Two powerful women in equipment finance — Eileen Schoonmaker and Michelle Speranza — discuss how women can advocate for themselves and each other and how companies can change their practices to provide more women with the opportunity to ascend the corporate ladder.

Eileen Schoonmaker,
General Manager and President,

Only five (5%) Monitor 100 companies are led by women, and just like most companies’ C-suites, equipment finance industry events have historically been male-dominated as well, which is a trend the Equipment Leasing and Finance Association’s Women’s Council has set out to change. According to data provided by the ELFA, 14% of 2015 ELFA Annual Convention attendees identified as women, but this year the percentage jumped to 21%.

Even with these gains, women with their eye on leadership roles must continue to be proactive about advancing their careers. We checked in with two powerful women in the equipment finance industry — Eileen Schoonmaker, general manager and president of DLL, and Michelle Speranza, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of LEAF Commercial Capital — for advice on how women can advocate for themselves and each other.

Confidence to Speak Up

“It really comes down to not being afraid to speak up,” Speranza says. “Have an opinion.

Michelle Speranza, SVP and Chief Marketing Officer, LEAF Commercial Capital

Be confident in it and express it. Ask for what you want. It’s what I’ve always done, and I know it has opened up opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I think that being vocal in a confident and direct way has been a major asset in advocating for myself and building my career. It’s also helped me build sincere, authentic relationships within my company and across the industry. Of course, those relationships are worthwhile for their own sake — I’ve made some good friends in my career and have gained mentors whose advice I deeply respect and value. But these relationships also give you a network of people who naturally and organically become advocates for you, just as you become advocates for them. You don’t have to ask for their support, and they don’t have to ask for yours. You just go to bat for one another, and that can be such a powerful thing.”

Schoonmaker, who ascended into the leadership ranks in the late 1980s, says her early advocates were all male, beginning with her father, who gave her the sage advice, “You have a brain, and you have a voice, and it’s your job to use both,” which led her to see self-advocacy as a personal responsibility.

“I showed up and I spoke up,” Schoonmaker says. “It was about being present and putting myself out there for opportunities, and then that became part of my own advocacy tool kit. I was often afraid, but I did it anyway.”

Calling Out Microaggressions

Even when women step up and speak up, we often encounter microaggressions and gender bias in the workplace, which can be demoralizing. What can women do in these situations?

“I think it’s best to address bias and microaggression clearly, directly and as soon as you can,” Speranza says. “Calmly point out how what the person said or did affected you. Sometimes just bringing it to the person’s attention is enough to prevent further occurrences of the behavior. If not, find someone in a position to help you, ideally someone with whom you’ve already built a trusting, genuine relationship.”

Schoonmaker also suggests calling out behavior immediately in a manner that is educational. “If I’m in a meeting with colleagues and someone repeats what I just said, I’m perfectly comfortable to say, ‘Thank you for clarifying my idea. I like the way that you did this,’ and bringing attention to it for understanding,” Schoonmaker says. “Sometimes human beings can change, but human nature takes a longer time to change. We all have unconscious biases and we can all consciously decide to do something about it.”

“Experiencing gender bias or microaggression can be very isolating,” Speranza says. “It’s easy to feel like you’re alone and that maybe it’s better to just pretend it didn’t happen or that it didn’t matter that much. That’s why it’s important to reach out and show support when you see bias and microaggression happening to someone else. When people see that others support them, they feel much more empowered to stand up and work toward change.”

“I believe very strongly in education first,” Schoonmaker says. “As business leaders, it’s absolutely essential that we’re providing that education within our organizations. So, within DLL, for example, we have our Allies for Inclusion program. We have an entire training program built around diversity, equality and equity, and we expect our senior leadership to all participate in that so they all become Allies for Inclusion.”

According to Schoonmaker, DLL’s training program includes instruction on understanding and doing something about bias. It also includes mentoring and coaching about how to recognize microaggressions and how to recognize gender — or any — bias. The program also teaches DLL members how to become comfortable speaking up in situations and how to access alternative support systems that can speak up on their behalf if they are not comfortable doing so.

Keeping Women in the Workforce

In the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. workforce lost 2.3 million women.1 Many of these women decided to opt out of employment when faced with the pressures of full-time work and full-time caretaking responsibilities. How can women who are in these situations advocate for themselves?

“It’s so common for women to take on responsibilities like caring for sick family members or overseeing children’s schooling in addition to their work responsibilities without asking for help. But sooner or later, that just leads to burnout. So, I think the first step in advocating for ourselves as women in situations like these is to recognize and accept our limits, ideally before we hit the wall and do something like leave a job where we’ve worked so hard to advance and grow,” Speranza says. “It’s so important to speak up about it and ask for the help we need to integrate work and life, but I think many women are reluctant to do this because they’re concerned about appearing weak and playing into gender stereotypes. I get that, but the way to change it isn’t to just keep soldiering on without help until you can’t anymore. Everyone loses when you do that — you, your family, and the company that’s invested in your growth and development. So, in the end, it’s not just a good idea to advocate for yourself in these situations; it’s imperative. And it’s not just good for you and your family; it’s good for business.”

“As parents, our job is to protect and raise our children, and there is nothing about it that is easy. We’re a hybrid workforce, but we’re still mostly virtual, and kids are there, dogs are there. It’s all about the flexibility,” Schoonmaker says. “I would say to everyone, ‘Before you make a decision, let’s talk about it and see if there’s something that we can work at here,’ rather than have them lose their mind, or us lose a valuable member and contributor. Because in both cases, there are losses.”

To create needed flexibility for employees under pressure, Schoonmaker suggests organizing work and its timing around employees’ schedules wherever possible, ensuring they are supported during times when they have caretaking roles to perform and providing flex hours and paid time off.

“It’s important to show empathy,” Speranza says. “So many times in a corporate environment, leaders don’t feel comfortable expressing empathy for fear of not appearing professional enough or somehow weak, particularly if you’re a female. But I believe real empathy and the willingness to show it come[s] from a position of strength and confidence. According to the research we’ve seen, empathy is one of the most desirable characteristics in an employer right now. Of course, you need to back up that empathy by doing what you can to help your people meet their challenges, but simply knowing that they’re seen and understood can go a long way toward keeping employees with your company.”

Hammering the Glass Ceiling

A 2021 McKinsey study showed that for every 100 men promoted and hired to a manager position, only 72 women are promoted and hired for the same role.2 How can we change this?

“This is all about your recruiting strategy,” Schoonmaker says. “All the way from where you recruit, how you recruit, up to and including your interviewing piece of it.”

Schoonmaker says DLL sets hiring expectations with a target percentage of women in senior leadership and middle management roles. From there, the human resources department ensures there is diversity in the final interviewing pool of candidates. In addition, hiring managers are trained to remove bias from the interview process.

“Women in leadership have a great deal of impact on where we go from here in terms of gender equality and diversity in management positions,” Speranza says. “It’s our efforts that have gotten us to where we are today, and it’s our efforts that will bring us to full equality. As women in leadership, we have a responsibility, I think, to use our position and platform to keep hammering away at that glass ceiling and clear the way for other women who aspire to lead. That’s why it’s so essential to make continuing advocacy an active part of our leadership roles. But beyond advocating on an individual level, it’s important to leverage the relationships we’ve nurtured throughout our careers to build coalitions that promote change within the company and throughout the industry.”

1 Ellingrud, Kweilin, “What we lose when we lose women in the workforce,” McKinsey, Jun. 3, 2021.

2 “Women in the Workplace,” McKinsey, Sept. 27, 2021.

Rita E. Garwood is editor in chief of Monitor.

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