- Lisa McGeough, head of international banking at Wells Fargo, shared how she broke the glass ceiling.
- Deloitte research from 2019 shows that women hold only 22% of leadership roles in finance.
- The glass ceiling is the set of obstacles women face when trying to ascend to top corporate positions.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
When Lisa McGeough first walked onto the fixed income trading floor at Salomon Brothers (which was later acquired by Citi) in 1984, she was one of about 12 women in her class. There were more than some 65 men.
McGeough, then 21, quickly learned she was in a man’s world. And the odds were not in her favor.
Over the years, she’d experience numerous microaggressions from her male colleagues.
“Girls can’t trade.”
“You’re so good at note-taking.”
“I didn’t know you were interested in golf.”
But she refused to let them get to her. Today, McGeough holds one of the highest positions in finance. She leads Wells Fargo’s international banking operations, which encompasses all the businesses across the Americas, Asia Pacific and Europe, Middle East, and Africa.
“It was a tough place, the trading floor,” McGeough told Insider. “But that’s where I developed my resilience because I was not able to change the culture. I had to adapt to the culture, and survive the culture, and then thrive within the culture.”
There’s been progress toward gender equality since the 1980s. Social norms have changed. The recent #MeToo movement has forced leaders to take a hard look at sexual harassment and the lack of women in leadership within their own walls.
The Civil Rights Act of 1991, for example, gave people suing for workplace discrimination more rights and forced employers to take claims more seriously.
Yet, at the same time, many things have remained the same. Executive positions are still mostly occupied by white men. Out of all the CEOs on the Fortune 500 list, only about 37 are women. There are only 6 black CEOs.
There’s still a glass ceiling, a set of barriers women face when trying to climb the corporate ladder and make it into the C-suite. According to Deloitte research from 2019, women hold only 22% of leadership roles in finance. While it’s expected to grow, to 32% by 2030, that’s still well below parity.
Approximately 48% of senior leaders at Wells Fargo are women, according to company data provided to Insider. Some 25% are racially or ethnically diverse and 9% are Black.
Industry leaders like Salesforce and Amazon still wrestle with workplace discrimination, according to reports. And businesses across a range of industries show disappointing diversity numbers when it comes to their executive leadership.
This is despite women holding 50% of entry-level positions, according to 2019 research from McKinsey and LeanIn.
McGeough cracked the ceiling, though. For International Women’s Day, she reflected on how she did it.
Learning the value of hard work
McGeough said she’ll never forget visiting her immigrant grandparents. Her grandmother, who emigrated from Italy, worked two jobs – one at a men’s tailor shop and another at a local garden. She’d come home, pick food from the family’s garden in their backyard, cook dinner, and then would routinely stay up until nearly 3 a.m. sewing clothes for the family.
McGeough’s parents, who owned an IT company in Chicago, encouraged her and her three younger siblings to work hard in school and in life.
“It’s been in my psyche for my whole life, watching them as role models and how hard they worked,” she said. “Hard work, focused dedication, and resilience are the things that I got from them.”
McGeough attended Bowdoin College in Maine, graduating with a degree in economics. Shortly after, she began a three-year career at Salomon Brothers.
She worked hard to make it in the cut-throat world of finance, facing constant microaggressions and bosses who didn’t believe in her abilities.
But she stayed determined.
“No, one’s going to knock me out,” she’d tell herself. “No, one’s going to win. I am going to be the one that’s going to. I’m going to survive and I’m going to thrive.”
Hard work alone, however, didn’t make her an executive, she said.
“There is no fairy godmother. There’s no person who’s going to just notice you and pull you into a high level role,” she said.
Be the CEO of your career
Women and other professionals from underrepresented groups have to be more active about how they plan their career growth, she told Insider.
Her philosophy boils down to a simple catchphrase: “Be the CEO of your career.”
In other words, take charge of your career, as a CEO would take charge of their company. Actively advocate for yourself.
For example, do not assume your manager or your manager’s manager will notice your hard work, she said. Keep track of your progress, she said, and bring it up in meetings, especially when it comes time to performance reviews.
Make sure your career has a “board of directors,” or a group of people who can help you along the way and advocate for you.
“It’s not just your boss. It’s your clients, a lateral manager, mentors or sponsors,” she said.
They can advocate for you when you’re not in the rooms where decisions are being made.
By having a board of directors, McGeough said she was recommended for roles that other women were passed up for.
Know when to move and look for new opportunities
Women have to know when to leave a job where they can no longer grow.
For McGeough, that happened when she had a manager who insisted she go home to take care of her kids instead of offering her the opportunity to cover clients who required extensive travel. This was despite her insistence she was the family’s breadwinner.
After that experience she knew she had to get out.
Career progress often isn’t a straight path, but rather a series of lateral moves, she said. Some of those moves happened when she saw an opportunity, raised the issue with leadership, and pitched herself for the role.
“I raised my hand to do something very hard that no one else was doing. And there was a very large gap in this particular role that I observed,” she said. “Take risks, be uncomfortable.”
Now, as a leader, she actively advocates for up-and-coming talent, especially women and those from underrepresented backgrounds.
“How do I advocate for this talented woman or diverse person on my team to give them the visibility that they need? Because I’ve experienced what they’re experiencing now. How do I create a diverse leadership team?”
Those are questions she says more leaders should be thinking about, she said.