Empowering Women in Leadership Starts with Listening

By Kristin Messerli

Since 2010, the financial services industry in the United States has made strides to close the leadership gap at every level of the workforce. The mortgage and lending industry, in particular, lags behind banking and finance in terms of women in leadership roles. To date, there are no specialized statistics tracking women in leadership in the industry, but we can formulate an educated opinion based on financial industry data and anecdotal evidence.

Women in financial services make up 20% percent of executive committee positions, but that number drops to just 14% when we talk about banking.[1] There is overlap between banking and mortgage, and some of the largest global banks headquartered in the U.S. have significant mortgage operations. Additionally, nearly every woman in the mortgage industry notices the often blatant lack of women in leadership. Marcia Davies, the MBA’s Chief Operating Officer, is quoted by Fannie Mae stating, “I have spent the majority of my career in mortgage finance, and to this day it is not rare to be the only woman in the room.”[2] Similarly, the Co-Founder and Executive Vice President of Alterra Home Loans, Valerie Madiedo, said she and her team noticed a glaring omission of women when they compiled a video in 2016 of their top sales branches. There were zero women in the video.

“While the majority of our operations are female, our sales reps and management were lacking. This isn’t the message of inclusion we want to send to the public or our employees.”

[1] “Women in Financial Services” study, Oliver Wyman & Co., 2016 http://www.oliverwyman.com/content/dam/oliver-wyman/global/en/2016/june/WiFS/WiFS_2016.pdf

[2] “Women Are a Growing Force in the Mortgage Industry”, Fannie Mae, 2016 http://www.fanniemae.com/portal/media/business/women-realtor-070716.html

Nearly every company in this industry could say the same thing. However, most will never take action. I am writing this white paper in partnership with Alterra Home Loans, as they have allowed me to share their progress and areas of deficiency in order to promote stronger female leadership in the industry. We hope that through sharing this data, we can bring urgency to the problem and insights into how we can make progress together. In this paper, we will share why it is important to have women in leadership, insights gained from Alterra female managers on what attracts and retains female talent, and how we hope to make progress together as an industry.

The Problem

While it is widely acknowledged that there is a lack of gender diversity in the top ranks in the mortgage industry, does anyone really understand why that matters? According to a recent study by McKinsey & Co., more than 75% of CEO’s say gender equality is in their top ten business priorities.[1] Yet most companies cannot make female recruitment and retention a priority because they don’t truly understand the depth of the problem or how it will influence their long-term sustainability.

Many people think that women’s voices are important to have at the leadership table because we represent female consumers’ needs and because we are more “nurturing” and therefore better at building relationships and encouraging self-development. While this is true that women tend to excel in these roles, according to a study cited in the Harvard Business Review, women executives outperformed men in many areas that are traditionally thought of as “male” strengths.[2] Women scored well above men, for example, in taking initiative and driving results. Valerie Madiedo says she believes women are, in fact, created to be stronger than men in many ways. The problem, she says, lies in whether they believe the sacrifice is worth the payoff to juggle both family and career.

[1] “Women in the Workplace 2016”, McKinsey report, 2016 http://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/women-in-the-workplace-2016

[2] “Are Women Better Leaders than Men?”, Harvard Business Review, 2012 https://hbr.org/2012/03/a-study-in-leadership-women-do

Valerie explains that women may hesitate in pursuing a leadership position, thinking, “Am I going to be able to breathe if I take this step?” Despite progress in recent years, women still bear a heavier burden than men in balancing work and family. According to a recent survey by Pew Research Center, women are three times as likely as men to say being a working parent makes it difficult to advance in their career.[1] Because many companies do not have female executives to bring attention to this issue, they often don’t provide the flexibility and support that is needed to help working mothers be successful.

Additionally, leaders need to create more intentionality around recruiting and developing women from within. Having an internal pipeline of female leaders is critical to seeing more executive female representation. Unfortunately, there is still a level of bias or misunderstanding that often prevents women from having equal opportunities for advancement. In a study of more than 130 companies with over 34,000 men and women surveyed, findings showed that women negotiated for raises and promotions as often as men but faced more pushback than men and had less opportunities for informal mentorship.

“I worked hard and have always been a top producer in the companies I used to work for, but my managers never encouraged me to grow outside of the role of a loan officer.” – Alterra Female Branch Manager

In addition to less opportunities for mentorship or skill development, women are less likely to pursue management positions if they don’t have exposure to female leadership.

“We knew we could become managers because we had a female manager. It didn’t seem out of reach for us.” – Alterra Female Branch Manager

Many women are unsure whether they are prepared to take on a greater management role or uncertain as to how to go about the pursuit, and therefore they wait until the opportunity may or may not present itself.

Women are still underrepresented at every public-facing level of organizations, and there seems to be little progress in the mortgage industry to turn this priority into meaningful action. Like many companies, Alterra recognized their leadership team was deficient at a lowly rate of only 2% of women in leadership. However, by taking some intentional actions, they have grown that number to 25% female representation in leadership, and half of their management level hires last year comprised of women. In only one year, Alterra has made significant progress, and they are not slowing down. In this paper, we share key insights gained by analyzing their process to achieving this growth. By doing so, we hope to encourage other companies to follow in their footsteps in making a public commitment and intentional action toward change.

[1] “Women Still Bear Heavier Load than Men Balancing Work and Family”, Pew Research, 2015

Insights from Women in Leadership

Whether starting a recruitment initiative or a marketing campaign, it is critical that companies understand the demographic they hope to reach. One way to do this is by surveying their current employees or customers that represent the target demographic. In the following section, we identified a few key values that were consistent among the interviews performed by Alterra, and which have helped guide their recruitment and talent development practices. We are sharing these insights and their process of performing this research in hopes of helping other companies in this industry do the same.

Based on wider research of women’s workplace behavior and preferences, the following data points will be helpful to all companies. However, there are nuances that will consistently differ within each company depending on the company culture and region. For example, Alterra’s female talent consists of mostly Latina women, and this cultural nuance is evident in many responses. It is crucial that companies perform their own research into the values and challenges of the women they employ.

Who We Interviewed

While Alterra encourages a culture of open dialogue among employees and managers, we chose to interview their top producing female managers in order to identify the traits and values that attracted them to Alterra and their position as managers. By listening to their comments, we can identify new methods of communicating these opportunities to top-talent recruits and through internal talent development. Below are the top values and key insights gathered from our interviews with the female managers of Alterra.

Value for Mission-Driven Culture

Each of the women interviewed expressed a strong value for the company culture and Alterra’s mission-driven focus. They are all deeply rooted in their communities, and serve multiple organizations through board service, homeownership education, mentorship, and cultural and charitable awareness.

While many companies are focused on profit maximization and increasing production, Branch Manager in Oklahoma City, Julia Adame, said that she felt her values and industry goals were supported with Alterra. While she has always been a top producer (and is named one of the top 250 Latino loan officers by the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals), she explains that she entered the industry out of a desire to help educate her community.

“Starting early in my career with mortgages, I became aware that predatory lending had been occurring in my community. Since then I’ve made it a point to educate the non-English-speaking community.”

In order to feel supported and empowered by her company, she needed to know that her mission was shared by leadership.

When asked about her role as a female manager, Norma Gonzalez explained that inclusivity and mission are what made her initially feel at home with the company.

“I think that’s why Alterra and I align so well. Our mission is to build wealth through homeownership regardless of your race, gender, religion, or anything else someone has chosen to label a person. We value people. Anyone and everyone has a home here at Alterra, including me.”

Value for Resources and Products to Empower Community Leadership

A mission-driven culture is not enough to serve their communities. The women interviewed said they valued their transition or role with Alterra because the company acted on their intentions to bring support to underserved segments through their products and resources. Adame explained that she provides home buyer’s classes in Spanish, writes articles to educate the non-English-speaking community, and feels empowered to better serve this community through products such as the ITIN loan product.

Patricia Dewendt and Shirley Vega, managers in the Atlanta area, both agreed that the product set was a big reason for choosing to join Alterra.

“What attracted me to Alterra was the product set, the support and the culture… What drives me to be a top producer is the responsibility I have taken on within my community and the agents that have given me their trust. Alterra gives me the support and resources I need to be a better leader in my community.” – Shirley Vega

Value for Supportive Leadership Team

Many of the women felt that it would have been impossible to grow into a leadership position without the support of their managers or the company’s leadership. Co-Founder, Valerie Madiedo, said she has worked to ensure all employees feel that they are supported both in their careers and in their family life. As mentioned previously, many women hesitate to pursue or accept leadership positions because they fear they cannot properly balance a career and family. At Alterra, they have a space in the corporate office for family and children to spend time at the office if needed, and everyone is encouraged to take flexible hours in order to pick up their kids from school or accommodate family activities.

Pamela Stephens, Nashville Branch Manager, said that one of the things she values most about Alterra is that…

“there has not been a single moment when I felt that the fact that I’m a female has slowed me down. On the contrary, I am empowered and supported in every way.”

Seemingly small areas of support such as encouragement to take care of their families can go a long way toward improving happiness levels at work.

Additionally, Shirley Vega explained that she thinks women often take business more personally than men. She says that they invest personally and emotionally in each client, and so it can feel devastating if a loan does not go through or they can’t help a customer for some reason. By having supportive leadership that values this kind of investment and encourages them during difficult moments, they can overcome those hardships faster and feel more empowered.

Value for Opportunities for Career Development

As previously discussed, women are often given less opportunities for career development and mentorship than men. While equality in this area continues to improve, it is still a major problem. Many times it is simply because there are few women in leadership positions and men feel uncomfortable with approaching women to cultivate leadership skills. In any case, every woman interviewed among the Alterra managers said they valued the opportunity to grow into a leadership position and expand their business. Julia Adame explained that she had always worked hard and been a top producer, but it wasn’t until Alterra approached her that she was given an opportunity to move up in leadership.

Shirley and Patricia said the primary reason they moved to Alterra was for an opportunity of advancement and leadership. Having a female manager when they were younger, they say, helped inspire and prepare them for a leadership role. However, it wasn’t until Alterra approached them that they were given the opportunity to make a move on that dream. Today, they have plans to expand their business, and they express excitement about the potential for growth through the company’s support.


Women in leadership not only means greater representation and equal advancement opportunities. It also means a greater opportunity for growth in reaching one of the largest segments of home buyers and household decision-makers. Women are leading the nation’s purchasing trends and decision-making in today’s housing market with single women making up one in five home purchases (NAR). Women in leadership means more market share, more female employees, and greater leadership.

A lack of female applicants to senior level positions is not an excuse for inaction. Companies like Alterra, who notice a need for change, must make meaningful steps toward recruiting and developing female talent in order to remain competitive long-term. As Valerie Madiedo says to women entering leadership, “If you really want something, don’t let anything get in your way. It’s going to be a lot of work, but don’t be afraid of it. At the end of the day, we are women and we are strong.” As an industry, we can work together to empower women in leadership, build our businesses, and ultimately improve our communities. If we really want it, we can make progress together.