AmEx's Kerrie Peraino on Gender Intelligence

By kyle stock

Employment for women at American Express has its benefits.

They make up 60% of the staff at the New York-based credit card concern and the firm's "Women in the Pipeline" initiative has been lauded as one of the most forward-thinking gender equality efforts on the Street, according to women's advocacy group Catalyst Inc.

We sat down with Kerrie Peraino, senior vice president of human resources at AmEx, to discuss how workers are being mentored "to death," why the company doesn't have trouble recruiting women and its plans to fill about 800 positions worldwide this year.



Kyle Stock: Over 60% of AmEx workers are female, does that ratio hold at senior levels?

Kerrie Peraino: Women make up over 30% of our senior team and by that we mean our top 500 managers. At the mid-levels its closer to the halfway mark.



KS: Tell me about this initiative: Women in the Pipeline and at the Top?

KP: We felt we were well-positioned to take advantage of this kind of effort. We have great representation of women who are senior leaders. And who better than American Express to be really vanguard in changing the gender mix?

Basically, it's three work streams. The first is building a women's community, which is really to solve one of those barriers that's often cited. We have over 30% women in our senior ranks, yet they didn't feel connected or feel the strength of that network in a major way. We hosted our first global women's conference in September and 170 senior women came together.

The second one is what we call Pathways to Sponsorship. We looked at the career paths of men and women and they were looking pretty similar, but the one thing we could point to was sponsorship relationships that the men enjoyed. Mentorships are great, but there's this notion that we mentor women to death. A mentor invests time in you, but a sponsor invests in you.

We don't believe you can have a sponsorship program like you have a mentoring program. In the end you earn sponsorship, we can't do it for you. One of the key things we're doing with approximately 20 very senior women are in a very individualized development approach based on what they need and that includes pairing them with senior leaders who are getting to know them.



KS: And the third work stream?

KP: That is becoming a more gender-intelligent organization.



KS: Forgive an ignorant question, but what is gender intelligence?

KP: There are different ways men and women's brains process information -- one is not better than the other, one's not right and the other wrong. It's about having both brains at the table, so you can move forward faster and better understand your customer base.



KS: How do you train this?

KP: We've taken a fairly top down approach. We do four-hour, deep-dive gender intelligence sessions with both men and women. We talk about the misperceptions, miscommunications, the biases that occur. There are so many 'Ah-has' in the context; it is fascinating to watch.



KS: How about recruiting?

KP: We don't have an issue attracting women. We do pay attention to our diverse hiring, however. For senior searches, the firms that we work with know American Express is very interested in having a diverse team.



KS: I noticed only one of the 12 top executives is a woman, General Counsel Louise Parent, is that discouraging?

KP: Louise is a real beacon for the women in the organization and a real role model for us. It's not discouraging for us, because we have seen the number of women at the level right below Louise double since 2008.



KS: So that will change?

KP: We are average at the very top. The reality is we're looking really to shatter that. The reason things like gender intelligence and the sponsor effect are working, is that they're not just for women. They are for everybody, including men.



KS: How about programs to bring back women who have left the workforce?

KP: We are going live with our alumni network this year, which will be a chance to reengage with us actively and search our job postings, so we're hoping it will fill that role.



KS: When can we expect that?

KP: I don't want to jump the gun, but it's safe to say mid-year.



KS: How do you measure success when it comes to gender equality?

KP: We have what we call a [chief diversity officer] dashboard. We're looking at gender ratios at all levels, the advancement progress, performance assessments and talent assessments. And I look by line of business, I look by segmentation. I look by level.



KS: What's been most challenging?

KP: Getting people comfortable with segmentation, and the real laser focus that that calls for, makes people uncomfortable.



KS: By segmentation you mean when you look at senior levels and that ratio of 60% women disappears?

KP: Exactly. When you segment, you can always find opportunities to be even better. Because we've been doing this for so long, it would be easy to kick up our heels and say 'Oh, it's great. We're all set.'



KS: Is the firm hiring?

KP: Yes. We're out there in a big way. In fact, we've just undergone a renovation in our careers Web site.



KS: Is it encouraging to see so much talk about your efforts among women's groups and other finance companies?

KP: It's exciting. One of the things that I have learned most poignantly as a diversity officer is that you share best practices externally, no matter what you're doing. There is a greater good at stake. The only value of the sponsor effect, for example, is in its adoption broadly. If women don't hear about it, then it was just a good idea in a box

Write to Kyle Stock




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