Photos by Hillary Ehlen
With more than 25 years of experience working in a male-dominated career, Thoreson Steffes Trust Company Cofounder Kelly Steffes believes women have reason to view their minority status in an organization as an asset.
The success of a business depends on a diverse team — not just with regard to gender, but also race, age, generation, culture, and ethnicity, among others — that brings fresh ideas, perspectives and views.
Fargo INC! sat down with Steffes to discusses workplace diversity and the strides businesswomen have taken in the world of finance.
In what ways do you think having diversity within the workplace enhances a business?
Kelly Steffes: Our nation and workforce are both becoming more diverse. A company that embraces diversity within the workplace can more effectively market to clients from diverse backgrounds, thereby increasing market share. In addition, recruiting from a diverse pool of candidates makes it more likely to hire the best and brightest in the labor market. I also believe a diverse and inclusive workforce can be key for a business to avoid employee turnover.
I believe one of the greatest benefits is that bringing together employees with different qualifications, backgrounds and experiences increases creativity and innovation within the workplace.
Instead of viewing one’s minority status in an organization as a negative, should more women view it as an asset?
KS: Women have reason to view their minority status in an organization as an asset. We have attributes that are unique to us, and we should embrace those differences. We have the opportunity to stand out and make contributions that are unique and provide diversification. Pew’s “Women and Leadership” surveyed Americans in 2015 and found that a greater percentage of those surveyed perceived women to be more honest and ethical, providing more fair pay and good benefits, and providing more guidance to young employees than our male colleagues. All strong attributes of future leaders that work in our favor.
According to Catalyst, finance is still a massively male-dominated profession; women in the United States only comprise 39.2 percent of managerial positions. How do you explain this gap, especially as a female in a male-dominated field?
KS: It’s been my experience that women, in most industries, enter the workforce with the same ambition and goals as their male counterparts and retain that ambition for the first several years of their career and in the later years of their career. However, there seems to be a problem in the mid-career years for many women. Although changing, many women remain more exposed to the family responsibilities. While many workplaces are adopting more flexible work schedules, I see women hesitant to take advantage of these options due to the potential stigma attached and fear of appearing less ambitious.
It’s difficult for many women to combine their private and professional life. As we work towards leadership roles, it becomes necessary to weigh the costs against the benefits. Investing more time into your career naturally takes away from your family. I believe many mid-career women choose to step away from their careers because they see promotions to leadership roles unlikely and not worth the sacrifices to their family. They also see disparity in the pay between men and women, further tipping the scale in favor of stepping back as opposed to moving forward in their career.
Having more women in leadership roles can significantly impact other women and help to instill more confidence in their future and opportunities. As the cost/benefits of career and family equalizes, women may be more inclined to strive for balance that doesn’t require them to take a step back in their careers.
Share some of your thoughts on women in finance.
KS: Women provide a unique perspective in this industry. Our natural tendency to be nurturing helps us to listen to clients and develop plans that will help them to meet their personal goals. Unfortunately, and too often in the finance industry, women are placed in support roles.
In some cases, I believe women tend to hold themselves back by being inherently risk adverse and more interested in a career with stable and secure income. My personal experience has been that more women in finance work at banks and receive salaries as opposed to men working independently and receiving commissions.
Women need more role models and women’s networks to be able to see themselves succeeding in what has been a male-dominated industry. As more women become successful leaders in this industry, more women will have the confidence to pursue a career in finance.
Have you experienced a change over the years being a female leader in such a male-dominated career?
KS: I see more acceptance of women in leadership roles. More importantly, conversations are taking place, and companies are beginning to embrace that diversity of thought leads to better results.
One of the biggest changes I have personally experienced is the increased willingness of women to empower and actively mentor other women. Programs such as the Chamber’s Women Connect play a key role in bringing professional women together in a setting that helps us to challenge and support one another. A new program offered as an extension of Women Connect, is PUSH, which stands for Pursue Dreams, Unite Women, Shatter Barriers, and Have Heart. These programs are great resources for women that may not have support and networks available to them in their workplace.
What tips would you tell your younger self if you could when you were first getting into this field?
KS: I would encourage myself to reach out to other women leaders much earlier in my career. Networking with other women has been valuable both personally and professionally.
What advice would you give to parents or teachers of kids who have an interest in finance?
KS: Developing the knowledge and expertise is important, but a genuine interest in and care about your client’s financial well-being is critical to success. This can be a difficult business to get into, but it is rewarding for those that can distinguish themselves. In addition to helping people manage their money, it’s important to be prepared to help them manage the stress and conflict that also comes with wealth.
Thoreson Steffes Trust Company
210 Broadway North, Fargo