Stephanie Epstein, Managing Director and Chief of Staff to the President at BlackRock, recently sat down with Thomson Reuters’ Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law (TWLL) initiative to discuss the firm’s Women in Focus program and how it’s spurring awareness and change at the company.
TWLL: How did the Women in Focus program come about?
Stephanie Epstein: Women in Focus is a discussion framework that was developed as part of BlackRock’s Women’s Initiative Network. The program is tailored to senior-level male managers at the firm and frames the discussion on the challenges women face in advancing their careers. While both men and women struggle in different ways in advancing their careers, it’s apparent that the hurdles for women can be higher. Our presentation was put together as one of many initiatives by the firm to help retain high-potential female directors and managing directors.
TWLL: So what challenge or structural barrier is this program addressing?
Stephanie Epstein: The presentation explores three different lenses around a woman’s experience at the firm.
The first is the environmental lens where we talk about cultural and social norms. We explore a woman’s perspective on certain networking opportunities such as golf outings or grabbing drinks after work. Given that it is sometimes harder for women to attend events later in the work day (due to responsibilities at home), we stress the importance of “intra-day” networking and giving advance notice (as opposed to same day) for events that take place in the evening. We share these perspectives with the male managers and suggest that these alternative tactics can be extremely helpful to women who want to take advantage of networking opportunities with their peers and senior management.
The second lens is around women as individuals. Sometimes women can be their own worst enemy by putting their head down and thinking great things will happen to them if they do a good job. Often times, women won’t raise their hands for stretch assignments because they feel they need to be 100% qualified, whereas research shows their male counterparts feel as if they only need to be 60% qualified for a stretch role. Here, we stress that male managers be aware of these self-limiting behaviors so they can help by being that “vote of confidence” for women if they need encouragement to take on stretch opportunities.
Finally, the third lens is around managers. We know that all roads lead back to the manager because they are the critical link between the organization and the woman. So here we talk about that important role of a manager — both as a mentor and a sponsor — because they can make a big difference in having women advance their careers.
TWLL: So tell me about the impact of the program so far.
Stephanie Epstein: The impact so far is that we’ve reached roughly 300 senior male managers in both San Francisco and New York. Now that we’ve raised the awareness, the next phase will be focused on putting this awareness into practice.
While both men and women struggle in different ways in advancing their careers, it’s apparent that the hurdles for women can be higher.
One of the things we’re exploring is a new gamification app where we will provide employees with the ability to practice some of these new behaviors. So that means in meetings, for example, it’s ensuring that every voice is heard as the app will prompt the meeting host to seek out the perspectives of all attendees. We hope that this will spark even more change as we seek to create an even more inclusive environment.
We are also rolling out this program to additional offices on the East Coast — it is now being implemented in Princeton, New Jersey, and we are in talks to launch it in Wilmington, Delaware as well.
TWLL: How have you measured success for the program?
Stephanie Epstein: Success is measured by retaining more women. Again, it’s raising awareness with our male managers so that they are developing and helping women advance their careers at the firm, but it’s also making sure we have female role models at the top for our junior colleagues to look up to.
TWLL: What do you need in order for your program to grow?
Stephanie Epstein: Both genders are required in this journey to spark change. On the West Coast, while it worked well, both facilitators of the discussion were women. In New York, we ran them slightly differently by having one of the facilitators be a male and having the other be a female. This slight change worked extremely well for the New York program because different perspectives were shared during each discussion, and it showed that it was important for both genders to have a place in this conversation.