By Melissa J. Anderson

On Wednesday evening, Deutsche Bank hosted its 17th annual Women on Wall Street conference in New York City. The event, entitled “Breaking Through to the C-Suite,” featured several senior female leaders in the financial and professional services who shared their advice on getting to the top.

Jeffrey Mayer, Managing Director and Head of the Corporate and Investment Bank in North America at Deutsche Bank, opened the evening by pointing out that although the industry is seeing a generational shift when it comes to gender diversity – about 20% of the event’s 2,000 attendees were at the Managing Director level or above, while 80% of were either “fresh out of college” or at the director level – “the percentage of women in senior front office roles falls short.”

He said, “We need to attract, develop, and retain more women who can punch through to the senior ranks.”

Keynote speaker Sharon Allen, Former Chairman of the Board of Deloitte LLP and the highest ranking female in the organization’s history, commented that while she believed that the ability to get to the top comes from within, organizational programs can have an impact on that outcome.

She said, “I know what a difference the organization can make because Deloitte was really a trailblazer with our [women’s] initiative.”

Importance of Flexibility

Following Allen’s keynote, she sat down with Carolyn Buck Luce, Principal and Global Life Sciences Leader at Ernst & Young, to discuss their own leadership paths. Both Allen and Buck Luce talked about the importance flexibility. Organizations should be sure to provide many routes for advancement rather than only one way up.

Buck Luce said, “Research shows that women might have those scenic routs.”

Allen continued, “We call it the Career Lattice. You might take these offshoots along the way, but you’re not taking yourself off [the career path].”

Top Organizational-Level Women’s Initiatives

After the conversation with Allen, Buck Luce invited to the stage Ilene H. Lang, CEO, Catalyst; Donna Milrod, Deputy CEO, Deutsche Bank Americas; Ann Marie Petach, CFO, BlackRock; and Katherine Garrett-Cox, CEO, Alliance Trust.

According to Buck Luce, a pre-conference survey showed that 64% of the audience said they agreed or strongly agreed that they aspire to the c-suite. She said, “Organizationally where are we? Thirty years after the women’s revolution… we haven’t made the progress we ant to make, not withstanding all of the policies and practices and discussions of the business case.”

The panelists shared their own career challenges, successes, and advice, and also shared their opinions on what corporate gender diversity initiatives really work.

Petach, who before moving to BlackRock had spent 23 years at Ford Motor Company, began by discussing the importance of communicating the business case for diversity and inclusion of thought. She said, “More than half of car buyers are women – and what the auto industry had was a lot of male designers.”

She explained how the company brought in teams of female engineers to re-craft automobile interiors – designing seats that were easier to move, doors that were easier to open, and making it easier to see children in the backseat.

“All the little features we no we now love came because women came to the design table. I really think that in today’s world, our clients are women. Women do have unique needs and unique insights. By having them part of the table, decision making, you see things you wouldn’t.”

Lang discussed the importance of leadership development in women – not just recruitment programs. She said, “One of the most important things to do is focus on talent stewardship.”

She also emphasized the importance of building accountability into development programs. “Companies that do it are very successful. Companies that don’t are not,” she added.

Garrett-Cox reiterated the point that Allen and Buck Luce had made earlier about flexibility. She said, “Sometimes you have to move sideways to move up.”

Milrod said that she feels that the next phase of gender work will be on the individual level. She explained, “We’ve done so many things programatically – I don’t know of any program that’s left to be done. But we still have not made it through the huge section of men to get up to the executive suite.”

“What’s left to be done?” she asked.

“People are comfortable and understand people who look like them. How do we break that last barrier? This is very personal stuff.”