A new alliance of women CEOs at small credit unions addresses the unique challenges they face and provides a network of support to help them succeed—a heightened priority as the pandemic places heavy burdens on women in the workforce.
A network for women executives that provides a lifeline not only for advancing their professional development but also for navigating their personal lives became a welcome reality when the Credit Union Women’s Leadership Alliance launched recently. CUWLA comprises women CEOs from 13 credit unions with assets of $300 million or less from across the country.
“We’re hoping to create an inclusive and safe space for women CEOs of smaller credit unions where we will share best practices, foster collaborative opportunities, and provide various levels of support and mentoring to each other,” said Lily Newfarmer, CUWLA’s founder and board chair, and president and CEO of Tarrant County’s Credit Union in Fort Worth, Texas.
Many smaller credit unions are led by women, who must overcome gender-related hurdles within the financial services sector. A support system like CUWLA gives them opportunities to grow on a personal and professional level and provides them with the tools to help them expand their credit unions and better serve their members.
“Not wanting to appear weak is still an issue for a lot of women” and often makes them hesitant to ask for help, said Newfarmer, who was inspired to start the group after hearing from friends who were part of a network of women CEOs at larger credit unions. “The good news is, once a network of support is established and women actually feel safe and it’s a trusted environment, they will participate.”
CUWLA aims to recognize and unite women CEOs in lower-asset credit unions so they have a place to voice to their concerns and find ways to leverage economies of scale. Beyond a peer-to-peer support system, the group has a long-term vision of creating a downstream effect that fosters the sustainability of all small credit unions.
The pandemic added urgency to the goal, Newfarmer said. More than one in four women are contemplating downsizing their careers or leaving the workplace entirely, according to a 2020 Women in Workplace study by McKinsey and LeanIn. And women—especially women of color—are more likely to have been laid off or furloughed during the pandemic.
To start a similar professional support system, Newfarmer recommends looking for like-minded people who seem like they would be a good source of support. Seek out people who have spheres of influence and tap into their networks. Look at organizations that have already developed such groups and ask them how they got started.
“We’ve been surprised as we tried to develop CUWLA and started talking to anyone and everyone about it,” she said. “You never know where you might be planting that seed and making connections.”