The journey to leadership

How women can overcome unconscious bias and conquer the fear of failing on the path to the top

By Debbie Scanlon

So, what’s all the hype around women in leadership — in particular, women in banking leadership? Why does it matter? It matters because the profitability of your institutions and the banking industry as a whole depend on how you address (or don’t) the issues facing women in your workplaces.

It is more than just wanting more women in leadership roles just to say we have them. According to Catalyst, companies with the highest representation of women on their top management teams experienced better financial performance than companies with the lowest female representation.

Team diversity increases your ability to solve complex problems, think creatively and promote innovation, which will be a requirement for your continued growth and future relevance. The endgame is greater profits, increased revenue and greater market share.

Research around women in the financial services sector indicates approximately 50% of first-level managers are women. However, you go a few short years down the road to the C-Suite and only 19% of those roles are occupied by women. Well, then, where are they going (or not going) and, more importantly, why?

For me, the only logical place to start to answer these questions is to look in the mirror. I am a woman, CPA and partner who specializes in banking. I realize the story of my journey to leadership can help others learn what barriers stand in the way of women’s advancement and how we can begin to make a change.

Unconscious bias

Let’s start with a phrase you need to understand — unconscious bias. My experience has been that as soon as someone sees the word “bias,” the immediate reaction is, “I don’t have bias,” and then they dismiss it. Stay with me for a minute because it plays a significant role in shaping how and why women do or do not get into leadership roles.

Unconscious bias refers to a natural programming of the brain where we jump to assumptions and conclusions without realizing it. This applies to how we perceive other people and can influence people and situations without us ever knowing we are doing it.

Unconscious bias causes us to seek out people who are more like us in various ways (e.g., looks, behaviors, interests, hobbies, culture, etc.). This, in turn, impacts who we interact with, who gets our attention, who we influence and how we make decisions.

If approximately 80% of our leadership is male, the unconscious bias theory would indicate those male leaders may have been grooming men more often than women by bringing men into situations and opportunities that helped give them valuable experiences to advance their careers, without ever realizing they were doing it with a bias toward men.

For example: “They are men like me, they like the same sports I do, they dress like me, they remind me of what I was like when I was climbing the ladder” and so on.

I don’t think men generally want to hold women back. Most men in leadership I have talked with want to see women be more successful and don’t understand why they can’t help more of them climb to the top.

However, if their management teams are not aware of the concept of unconscious biases and how this plays out in how they groom, coach and manage their teams, they may be causing a division they do not realize.

The role of fear

For me, fear tended to play a role in what I “went for” and what I didn’t when it came to stretch opportunities, promotions and the like. I started my career in our Kansas City office and one day my managing partner came into my office and asked if I would be interested in moving to Houston to start BKD’s banking practice in Texas. I looked at him for a moment and said, “no thank you.” He had a perplexed look on his face, but that did not sway me.

The next day, one of my partners (my mentor) asked if I had lost my mind. He begged me to please think about it a little longer and to go home and talk with my family and friends. Begrudgingly, I did. As my husband sat in his chair watching me pace in front of him, ranting about all the reasons why this was an awful idea, he just shook his head. I kept pleading, “I cannot do this, I am not good enough to do this, I am not qualified to do this.”

I was deeply afraid of failing and letting everyone in my firm and my family down.

Well, I live in Houston, so you see I did finally take that leap. But, why did I see the fear rather than the opportunity first? Because I was listening to that little voice on my shoulder saying, “You don’t have what it takes” (many of the women reading this know that voice well). I was deeply afraid of failing and letting everyone in my firm and my family down. It never occurred to me that even if I failed, the move could still be the right decision.

As I reflect on my journey these last 16 years in Texas, I realize I had developed some personal tactics that helped me to conquer the fear. These tactics are directed at women trying to move into leadership or to higher ranks in leadership. But the men reading this article can also understand these tactics to better coach and grow the women in your organization.


Understand what impacts your confidence. Personally, I was significantly impacted by not being considered for promotions and elections to positions that I considered myself to be in line for down the road. I would feel upset for not being qualified and ready when it was time. And, each time this happened, my confidence would drop. Lesson learned: Talk with your leadership and coaches about your goals and aspirations. Let them know what positions you are interested in, even if they are years in the future.

Be OK with failing

Women have a tendency to over-prepare. This is especially true when we are asked to do something out of our comfort zones. It is OK to fail. And, if you are really pushing yourself, expect to fail a lot! I would say that most of our leaders are not expecting us to be perfect in everything we do. They expect us to use our talents and expertise and give to the best of our ability in what we do.

So, do your best, but don’t restrict and perfect the situation so much that you limit the amount of risk you are willing to take. Understand that anything can flop at any time. It is how you deal with it and learn from it that will make you stronger and more valuable — a true leader.

Ask questions

Many women believe if they put their heads down and work hard, they will be noticed by their leaders and will be approached for promotions, raises, opportunities, etc. When our firm restructured many years ago, several new leadership positions were created. I put my head down, grew my practice, groomed my people and served my clients.

Much to my surprise a few weeks later, an e-mail was sent with the filled leadership positions. My name was not on that list. How could that be? My head is down and I’m working hard! They knew I was working hard, and they really appreciated all I was doing, but they never bridged the gap that the reward I was looking for was one of those leadership roles and not a pat on the back.

I never asked them questions about the positions. I didn’t know there was a “list” (by the way, there is one in every organization) and had done nothing to help get myself on that list. I just assumed they would see my good work and good deeds and reward me the way I wanted to be rewarded. You need to ask questions of your leaders especially as it relates to that promotion or special assignment you want a shot at. Speak up and get yourself on the list.


Women are awful at touting how great we are at our jobs. It is very uncomfortable for many of us to look at someone across the desk and say, “By the way, I am awesome!” It is especially hard when many of us are looking across the desk at a male leader. Keep a journal of your accomplishments so you remember what you have done for the company. Find a way to help show how you bring value. Bring this with you to the next evaluation, appraisal, mentoring or coaching meeting and talk about your accomplishments.

Change takes courage, energy and time. It took us a long time to get where we are, and it will take time for us to get where we want to be. That is no excuse for not changing. Women must break out from the crowd and begin to forge their own path to the top, even when you don’t see any other women ahead of you.

Stop blaming and start acting. We must take up the reins and ride forward to create more paths for the women coming behind us. If you train yourself to fear less, you will succeed in your journey into leadership, and those young women who start with your company behind you will see a leader and they will follow.

Debbie Scanlon is the regional industry leader for BKD National Financial Services Group in BKD’s South Region. She has more than 29 years of experience providing audit and consulting services to the financial services industry.