In late 2010, HousingWire published its first list honoring women in the housing and mortgage finance industry.

The cover was notably plain, the names of the award winners listed in purple text on white, with a tagline that read, “They’ve risen through the ranks to become some of the most influential leaders in mortgage finance and residential real estate. Read their stories of success and challenge.”

Through the years after, the list grew in prominence, moving from the cumbersome title: “Influential Women of the Housing Economy,” to simply “Women of Influence” in 2013. The name stuck, though the list changes tremendously every year. And this year, the need to highlight those stories becomes more important than ever.

The financial world at large is experimenting with changing its workforce culture in ways not fathomable 10 years ago. For example, in 2011, the dress code for female workers at UBS came to light with unflattering results. In it, the Swiss bank instructed female employees on not just how to dress and how to smell, but also preached the importance for ladies to apply lotion after taking showers.

Fast forward to today and fellow Swiss bank, Credit Suisse has now appointed Antoinette Poschung to manage the bank’s sexual harassment claims and examine group-wide policies. The Swiss bank created the official role of Conduct and Ethics Ombudswoman to boost equal opportunities and create a fair treatment environment. Has the American mortgage industry made similar progress?

BY THE NUMBERS

According to a survey by the Mortgage Bankers Association’s women’s network, mPower, 75% of women mortgage professionals experience something far worse than gender bias — sexual harassment.

“The voluntary survey results may, or may not, surprise you. The most startling number? Three of every four women surveyed, or 75%, said they had experienced at least one work-related instance of sexual harassment,” HousingWire’s Caroline Basile wrote in an article detailing the survey’s results.

Here are other findings from the survey:

  • Of those respondents reporting at least one incidence of sexual harassment, 87% reported that an incident occurred while they were in their 20s, followed by 56% reporting an incident in their 30s.
  • The most frequent location of an incident was at the office and the most frequent offending behavior was inappropriate comments.
  • More than 50% of those reporting at least one incident reported inappropriate touching and just under 50% reported unwanted sexual advances.
  • Of those experiencing at least one incident, only 8% had reported an incident to human resources and only 20% ever told someone in the chain of command about an incident.
  • Respondents said that recent events were more likely to make them call out perpetrators and to report incidents to someone in command or in human resources.

The numbers are sobering, true, but Marcia Davies, MBA’s chief operating officer and the founder of mPower, explained to me that the results primarily underpin the need to have a productive conversation about sexual harassment in the workplace.

“By fostering a dialog on the issues women face in business and more specifically in our industry through our growing number of mPower events and discussions, there is a far greater awareness today of what the problems are and how men and women must work together to address them,” she said. “Change will not happen overnight, but awareness that we have a problem is the first step toward positive change.

“I’m encouraged by those leaders in our industry who are committed to inclusion and providing more opportunities for women in the workplace. It’s encouraging, but there is a lot more that needs to be done,” Davies added. 

The numbers back Davies’ claim and she is right to bring up the need for greater awareness as there’s a perception problem to gender bias as well. For example, according to Forbes, the number of female CEOs is on the decline, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the perception is the opposite.

According to Niall McCarthy, a Forbes data journalist covering technological, societal and media topics, in a selection of 15 countries polled, respondents in Mexico, Brazil, India, Turkey and Russia all guessed that the share of female CEOs in the biggest companies is above 20%.

“In actual fact, it’s just 3%. American respondents also overestimated, guessing 18%, while South Koreans were a bit closer to reality with 9%.” Furthermore, women continue to be paid less than their male counterparts, across all careers.

According to think tank research from The American Association of University Women, in the United States, the unadjusted average female’s annual salary has commonly been cited as being 78% of the average male salary, compared with 88-93% for the adjusted average salary for college graduates. So, from top to bottom the allocation of resources into fair wages is a national problem.

CHANGING BEHAVIOR

Despite the growing popularity and ranks of the Women of Influence and the backlash against sexist behavior nationally, the challenges to success still remain.

Jillayne Schlicke is a mortgage lending consultant who authored a column for HousingWire where she calls out the acceptance of gender bias in the mortgage industry, specifically calling out a popular industry newsletter that sometimes features unsavory and sexist jokes.

In that piece, titled “Why is gender bias in the mortgage industry still accepted?,” Schlicke called out content curator and email updater Rob Chrisman for his use of sexist jokes in his email newsletters:

“Nationally, a broad conversation is happening around sexual misconduct, gender bias and sexist attitudes. Industries are being forced to tackle this attitude shift head on and change (for the better). So, how is a daily mortgage lending industry email with disparaging jokes about women still a thing?”

She continues: “Frequent readers of Chrisman know that at the end of his newsletter, there’s always a joke, or a link to a cat video, or something equivalent to what your grandpa would’ve emailed you in 1995. Sometimes, the jokes featured are crass and distasteful – but more often than not, they are biased against women.”

And the problem isn’t only present there. It goes deeper than that.

Sexual harassment is indefensible, and a few mortgage CEOs have lost their jobs as a result, but not their livelihood.

Mike Cagney, the former CEO of SoFi, was forced out amid accusations of fostering a work culture of sexual harassment. His latest venture, a new lending startup called Figure, has raised $50 million to grow the company and plans to use increasingly popular blockchain technology to facilitate loan approval.

On the other hand, another former CEO Gregory Englesbe, the founder of E Mortgage Management, was ordered to pay a Philadelphia-area waitress $3 million for forcibly kissing her. The company distanced itself from his behavior, though others defended it.

Nonetheless, these are solid responses to harassing behaviors, whereas biased actions are more nuanced. Writing jokes about women’s body types (gender bias) can be defended via the logical fallacy: “If you don’t like it, don’t read them.”

“One of our industry’s challenges is the relative subtlety of the gender imbalances we face,” said Jeri Yoshida, co-organizer of the NEXT conference events. “We haven’t been rocked by obvious #metoo scandals like other industries, so it’s easy to develop the illusion that we don’t have a lot to change. In our present industry, gender imbalance tends to surface in ways like scarcity of opportunity and visibility, which are difficult to call out.”

SOLUTIONS

Kristin Messerli, the founder and CEO of Cultural Outreach Solutions, is another example of someone seeking a way to remove gender bias in the mortgage industry.

“All leaders today need to put extra thought into their words and actions as we navigate the new standard for leadership and workplace culture,” Messerli said.

Messerli put forward a three-point code of conduct and called for it to be fully adopted across the industry:

  1. Start with respect
  2. Clearly articulate the problem
  3. Explain the personal benefits of change

“The most effective ways to reduce bias seem to be through empathy and respect,” Messerli said. “A change agent should begin the process with acknowledgement that they understand and respect the person they want to change while explaining why there may be a problem with that person’s (or organization’s) approach.”

“But all of this leads to one question: Is this effort affecting change?”

According to Yoshida, it is.

“We created NEXT to help offset the imbalance for women. At NEXT, we target senior executives and about 85% of our attendance is female, which is essentially the mirror opposite of a good number of mortgage industry events,” she said.

“We don’t discuss gender imbalance at NEXT. We simply eliminate it. Having an attendee base that skews heavily toward women executives frees up our attendees to gather competitive intel, grow their executive networks, and get recognized for their expertise and accomplishments, without any interference from the subtle – or not-so-subtle – activities that preserve the gender-imbalanced status quo in our industry.”

Gathering competitive intel is vital as the mortgage industry shifts to more tech-heavy operations. As things become increasingly digital and more automated, mortgages become free of the prejudicial decisions made by humans.

As proof, consider that consulting firm Accenture has a new tool to help businesses detect and eliminate gender, racial and ethnic bias in artificial intelligence software.

Bloomberg reporter Jeremy Kahn covered the product launch at a recent AI convention in London. “Accenture’s method assess an algorithm’s fairness in terms of ‘predictive parity’ – are the false negative and false positive rates the same for men and women, for instance…the tool shows developers what happens to their model’s overall accuracy as they equalize the predictive parity among sub-groups.”

The launch of these programs where machines can learn to make faster, unbiased decisions will no doubt help improve the mortgage process. Gender equality not only makes for a more ethical and just mortgage process, it also tremendously improves the production and revenue when fully adopted internally as well.

This is something Yoshida and her NEXT co-founder, Molly Dowdy (who is also one of this year’s Women of Influence), learned as they launched their conference.

While they both faced gender challenges themselves, they note they gained a lot of support from a number of companies. The path to equality is being built and companies will help pave the way more, once they understand that to do so is to grow rich, in several ways.

“If we obstruct contributions from an entire segment of the population, we are operating under substandard conditions as an industry. Studies have shown that financial benefit results from having more women on company boards and in executive positions,” Yoshida concluded.

“I suspect that more companies in our industry will take concrete steps to offset gender imbalance as they see their peers and competitors benefitting financially from doing the same.”

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