Susan L. Harper, Director at the Bates Group LLC and President of the Financial Women’s Association of New York, Inc. (FWA) has always been a staunch supporter of women’s advancement. This year, she used her position within the FWA to draw a greater focus on the topics of women in the public and political realm and negotiation for women.
“The FWA has been a leader in the areas of mentoring programs and sponsorship initiatives,” Harper said. “But I truly believe for us to get ahead that we need to take ownership of our advancement, become self advocates and harness our own negotiation power.”
This has been one of Harper’s signature initiatives, with events designed around salary and severance negotiation, advocating for work position advancement, and skills development workshops for emerging leaders. She explained, “With respect to women and the pay gap, it’s very important that we understand that we do have the power to negotiate and ask for what we want and deserve. If you’re at that point where a company has made you an offer and they want you, they are more than likely open to negotiating with you.” She continued, “In terms of pay equity issues, the phrase I like to say is, ‘Debt does not discriminate.’ With all things being equal, no one’s going to say ‘Sorry you make 77 cents to every man’s dollar. No worries. We’ll discount your bill because of that. No business in its right mind would ever do something like that, barring extenuating circumstances. So let me ask you this, why should you allow your paycheck to be discounted?”
“Remember, what we negotiate today will impact us years down the road in our retirement years. You need to take the initiative,” she added “it will benefit you and your family.”
“I’ve had an unusual career path,” began Harper. “I attended Simmons College and graduated with a business degree. It was right after the fall of communism in Russia and Eastern Europe, so I started an import/export company, selling products for women and children into the former communist countries, Central Europe and eventually Asia and the Middle East.”
She continued, “It was an interesting time of my life. It was very exciting to be able to be part of history. In Central Europe they had no quality products at all in the marketplace. I did a survey of several of the stores and I recall saying to my colleague, ‘My God, there’s nothing here I’d want to buy.’ It was mind-blowing and heartbreaking to see that, due to the political set up, people were denied access to products. Women did not even have access to things like maternity clothes or sanitary products (like tampons and pads) and this was the 1990s!”
Her job was bigger than business, she continued. “In my import/export business I needed to really understand how this part of the world worked – it had been closed off for so long, and in most cases I was the first American they ever did business with, post World War II and communism. I was very cognizant of the fact that I wasn’t just Susan Harper – I was representing America.”
Eventually Harper decided to go back to school. “I always wanted to be and planned to be an attorney and loved writing, so I went to law school, founded an award winning student newspaper, and eventually worked as a reporter for the New York Law Journal and became a legal editor.”
In addition to writing over 200 articles, she was able to get to know the legal community in New York through her career. Soon she finished law school and found herself at a crossroad – did she begin practicing law, return to business or keep working as a reporter and editor, where she had been doing quite well. “Ultimately I chose to practice law – I became a securities litigation attorney representing major corporations in litigation and arbitration disputes,” she explained. Today, Harper is a director with the Bates Group, a nationally recognized securities litigation consulting company. She leads its New York and New Jersey efforts and serves as a strategic advisor to Bates’ senior management.
She continued, “I always had strong feelings with respect to women and business. I was a leader in college and very active and vocal on many issues. While I now serve as Co-chair of the New York County Lawyers’ Association’s (NYCLA’s) Securities & Exchanges Committee, I was previously NYCLA’s Co-Chair of their Women’s Rights Committee and became aware of the FWA, which was in line with my business objectives and where I felt professional women should be heading.”
She joined the FWA and became a very active member, getting involved in committees and was eventually named pro bono General Counsel. Last year she became president of the organization for 2012 to 2013 – the first General Counsel in FWA’s 56 year history – and led a new strategic vision for the FWA during a major transition year. Her one year term winds down at the end of this month.
“My Presidential ‘Negotiating Your Way to Top’ initiative was born out of my work in the equal pay sphere on the New York State Bar Association’s Committee on Women in the Law’s Legislative Affairs Sub-committee” she said. “I realized that you can have so many laws on the books, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we are moving forward. I felt that it was very important that I encourage our members to advocate for themselves and take individual responsibility for their career advancement.” she explained. “We are equally capable of this, as well.”
The second initiative “Engaging, Advancing, and Celebrating Women in the Public and Political Realm” focused on the link between business and public service, encouraging the FWA’s members to be engaged in the Presidential election year and consider how they can leverage their unique skill set in the public realm. “When you look at senior executive business leaders’ career trajectory, it’s not unusual that, as they move along the business continuum, they move into public or political roles. Oftentimes, it makes a person more desirable when they seek to come back into the private sector,” she said, naming women like former Obama White House Deputy Chief of Staff Mona Sutphen, now at UBS, E&Y’s Global Vice Chairman Beth Brooke, IMF Chairwoman Christine Lagarde, and newly appointed SEC Chairwoman Mary Jo White, as examples of successful women who have weaved between the private and public sectors.
“Also, successful business men have always realized that they have had an obligation to give back to society through some sort of public service. What then is our obligation as successful professional women?” she posed.
Advancing Women in the Financial Services
“With respect to women in the industry, in many areas we’ve plateaued,” Harper said. “We are, however, seeing some encouraging signs for women. Our ‘FWA 100 Study’ shows that women have made some gradual increase on boards in the Tri-State area. Also, more women than ever before are CFOs.”
“On the flip side, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, Financial Services has one of the, if not the, biggest gender wage gap of any profession. Women are paid 55-62 cents for every $1 made by a man (the national average is 77 cents to the dollar). Starting female salaries are closer in parity to their male classmates (93 cents to the dollar, says Bloomberg) and even in the C-Suite, Harvard Business Review recently found that starting female CFO compensation is close in parity with men of similar experience, but that over time there is big pay gap.”
“Obviously there is a lot of work ahead of us. There is an enormous amount of discussion about women’s advancement. Everybody’s talking about it. Many companies want to get involved and be part of the discussion and solution and I’m very pleased to see that,” she continued.
She says that success in creating better companies for women will have to be driven by the leaders at the top. “In order to remove barriers the top leaders need to be committed and part of the process. Lead by example. Senior leaders need to send a strong message that women’s advancement is a strategic priority. It can’t just be ‘we have a diverse group.’ There needs to be a company-wide strategic approach at all levels to moving the needle ahead. It does take time to do this, but once you have a real commitment from the top, even if it’s shaped from business considerations, you can and will move ahead. You also need to have targeted goals that everyone believes in, and strategies to get there. That’s what helps make it happen and that is how everyone – women, the company and shareholders – will benefit.”
Men also have to be involved in this effort, she says. “At the FWA, we have a robust Men’s Alliance Committee that has provoked interesting discussions and dialogues over the past year. It’s important that women and men speak with each other, that the conversation involves all of us, because it impacts all of us – our workplace, our families and nation.”
Harper also encouraged women to stay in the industry. “Stay the course – when you opt out, women aren’t going to get to that critical advancement point. When life happens – and careers do get diverted for various reasons – don’t get discouraged. Just jump back in there. This is really important. The financial services industry is constantly changing. The issue is not just about advancement. It’s also about retention.”
“Whatever you are facing – whether becoming a new parent or dealing with sick or elderly family members or dealing with a personal or professional crisis – it is important to explore all options so that you can negotiate an optimal arrangement for you and your family to be able to manage whatever you are facing while remaining in the game. Walking out the door should not be the only option.”
In Her Personal Time
Harper, who has two young children aged ten and six, said, “I am very lucky. I have an enormously supportive family. In terms of women’s advancement, we need to be strategic how we structure our personal and professional lives so that we can go out and do what we need to do to get ahead.”
She continued, “After reading the Ann Marie Slaughter article in The Atlantic, I came to the conclusion that the whole concept of ‘having it all’ is really subjective. All families have different value systems and setups. What works for your family, may not work for me and my family and that is okay. Whatever works for you to get ahead and propel you to that next level is the right approach for you. There is no cookie cutter approach and we need to recognize and embrace this and stop having unrealistic expectations of ourselves. Just focus on your goals, your value system, period.”
She added, “At the end of the day, your happiness is important to the equation too. We cannot be passive players when it comes to our own advancement. This is not just about women as a group. It’s about you personally.”