As we approach International Women’s Day, it’s no secret that there is a major disparity between women and men in the financial sector. With this year’s theme being #EmbraceEquity, there has never been a better time than now to discuss and shine a light on the need to see more women leaders in finance, more funding and more programming to support women entrepreneurs and future leaders. We chatted with Shelley Besse, chief credit officer at First West Credit Union, to learn more about. —Vita Daily
Can you tell us a bit about your personal journey into finance and what attracted you to working in the finance/banking space in the first place?
As a teenager, I was determined to become a fashion designer. However, by the time I was ready to begin post-secondary education, the fashion design program I aspired to was full, so I opted to study business instead. That’s where I discovered how much I loved working with numbers. Intrigued by the world of finance, I decided to approach my local credit union about job opportunities – there weren’t any, but I refused to give up and eventually they took me on as a teller, and the rest is history! As I progressed deeper into banking, I realized that I was really good at it and the more I loved it. I actively sought growth opportunities which led me from the role of branch manager into more senior roles leading wealth management and even marketing, until I became the President of Envision Financial, one of First West Credit Union’s brand divisions in B.C. From there, I became First West’s Chief Operating Officer and then Chief Credit Officer, my current role. The one constant in every role I’ve ever had, and the thing that keeps me so committed to banking – specifically to the credit union industry – is the ability to make an impact in people’s lives. Cooperative financial institutions like First West exist to help our members with what matters most to them – like buying a home, saving for their children’s education, growing their business or planning their retirement – and as a democratic organization we get to make decisions in the best interests of the same people who use our services every day, not distant shareholders. It’s a fulfilling place to have a career.
What challenges have you faced as a woman working in the finance industry, and how have you overcome them?
When I was promoted to my first leadership role in financial services more than 30 years ago, I remember feeling like I didn’t quite fit in with my colleagues in a male-dominated industry. I would go out of my way to watch 30 minutes of sports talk television every morning so that I could connect better with my male peers! Since that time, I’ve seen a lot of positive change. At First West Credit Union we’ve been very intentional to take an extensive, broad-spectrum approach to advancing equity, inclusion and diversity, which helps create a culture of gender inclusivity as one of several key outcomes. On a personal level, I’m very passionate about empowering emerging female leaders to grow and take hold of new opportunities.
How do you think the finance industry can attract more women to pursue careers in finance, and what can be done to encourage women to stay in the industry long-term?
At my organization, female employees comprise our largest gender group, so a priority for me is enabling women to grow their careers and successfully pursue greater levels leadership. I’m a big believer in the power of personal human connections and mentorship. I believe that we as senior leaders in the banking industry – especially female senior leaders like me – have an opportunity to empower the women and girls around us when we share our own stories and prioritize time in our schedules to build real relationships with aspiring female leaders. In my own life, the single greatest source of impact in my career development has come through mentoring relationships – people who believed in me and took the time to invest in me. If you have a good mentor in your corner, you’re not only exposed to new opportunities, but you’re also empowered with the confidence and support to pursue them.
In your opinion, what are the biggest barriers that prevent women from advancing to senior positions in finance, and how can these barriers be overcome?
My perspective is limited because I’m part of a very inclusive organization at First West Credit Union. Our CEO is female and our senior leadership team is gender balanced. However, there’s a great deal of well-publicized research suggesting women are less likely to apply for new opportunities simply because they’re unlikely to be selected as the successful candidate – this applies to many industries including financial services. LinkedIn’s own Gender Insights Report has unearthed some fascinating findings in recent years, showing that women are 16 per cent less likely to apply to a job after viewing it, and that women apply to 20% fewer jobs than men. Yet, according to the same research, women are also 16 per cent more likely to get hired to the jobs they apply for. More women need to hear information like this. And perhaps even more importantly, aspiring women need mentors and supportive leaders who will invest in them and empower them in their career journeys.
One of the things we’re very proud of at First West Credit Union is our reputation for investing in own team members and developing the talent we have within our organization. Helping our team members reach their full potential through extensive training and leadership development opportunity is one of the key pillars in our employee value proposition, and we have outstanding numbers when it comes to internal promotions. Our leadership programs and initiatives are inclusive of all genders: we have an extensive internal mentorship program, a deep offering of leadership training resources, some high-profile leadership-building events and a thriving network of young leaders, for example. One of our credit union’s most important female-centric entities is the First West Women’s Network, a company-wide group of women and allies-inspiring-women through insights, knowledge, mentorship and coaching that enable women to elevate themselves. The First West Women’s Network plays an influential role in empowering women in our organization. Many leaders at First West have gotten involved with organizations that support female leadership development, like Minerva B.C. First West also recently hosted an event with by the Association of Women in Finance, which is a fantastic organization.
Have you seen any positive changes in the finance industry in recent years that are helping to close the gender divide, and what more do you think needs to be done to achieve gender equality in the industry?
When I look at where we’ve come and where we’re going as an industry, I’m tremendously optimistic. According to Statistics Canada, the share of women on boards of directors has increased at an average annual rate of 2.5% every year since 2016 – and while that’s across all industries, the sector with the highest representation of women on boards and the most positive change in diversity is financial services. We’re making progress. At the same, time there’s still work to be done. As more and more organizations in the financial services industry and beyond actively strive for greater inclusion and better gender equity, tackling systemic challenges at a programmatic level, I believe it’s up to us as individual leaders of all genders to lift up the aspiring female leaders around us on a personal level, investing our time and ourselves. There’s nothing more powerful and confidence building than someone you have a real relationship with saying “I know you, I believe in you and I’m committed to seeing you succeed.” I can’t overstate how deeply I believe in the power of human-to-human relationships, one-on-one connections and mentorship as a key ingredient to empower the next generation of female leaders.