updated 24 Dec 2010, 10:05
user id password
Fri, Jun 18, 2010
The Straits Times
Email Print Decrease text size Increase text size
Wall Street's power mum
by Tan Hui Yee

AS FATHER'S Day draws near, Singapore women struggling with work-life balance and agonising over whether to have children could do worse than check out banker Karen Peetz's way of getting her husband involved.

The Peetz game plan - while admittedly being easier said than done - is simplicity itself: Figure out what you want, talk to your spouse, proceed without guilt.

It certainly seems to have worked for her. At 54, she is the senior executive vice-president of the Bank of New York Mellon, the sixth largest bank in the United States.

The bank has 42,000 employees worldwide, three times the workforce of South- east Asia's largest bank, DBS Group Holdings. Last year, trade journal US Banker named her the second most powerful woman banker on Wall Street, behind Ms Heidi Miller, who heads JPMorgan Chase & Co's treasury and securities services unit.

She is also the mother of 24-year-old twins and so could probably claim to have managed to have it all.

But even this high-flier sees the flaws as she told The Straits Times during a recent visit to the bank's Singapore office: 'It's very important to keep your priorities straight. And I'm not the perfect example of work-life balance, I can tell you. Yet I wasn't ambivalent about that.

'I got very clear with my husband that I was going to want to keep going, as much as I could and as far as I could.

'He was very supportive of that, which meant he had to do a lot of things that helped with the children. And I then wasn't guilty or conflicted or said, 'Gee, I should have been at that game or Brownie meeting or whatever'.

'I think unfortunately a lot of women both don't have that support and/or are ambivalent. They think they should be the perfect mother.'

It helped that Ms Peetz's husband David had flexible work schedules as a self- employed landscape architect.

Her approach to child-rearing - which she apologises for being 'corny' - was to 'spend quality time'.

'If the children have something which is really important to them, you're there - even if you have to take a day off to do it. But you're not going to make it to everything,' she says.

'So maybe (my view) is a little Jack Welch-like.'

The former chief executive of General Electric sparked controversy last year when he declared that there was no such thing as work-life balance. People, he said, had to make 'work-life choices' as those who take time off for family risked being passed over for promotions.

Ms Peetz notes that managerial jobs do not lend themselves well to such arrangements. 'It's hard to be a two-day- a-week manager when you have other people reporting to you... What women who do that can do to themselves is lose momentum.

'If a woman is doing two days a week and a man is doing five days a week... and it goes on for five years, he could have skipped two or three levels by the time she comes back.'

Ms Peetz chose to jump right back into the rat race after taking four months of maternity leave 24 years ago. She employed live-in help who looked after the twins during the day, and did night duty together with her husband. 'That was pretty terrible,' she admits. '(The twins) didn't sleep... so I didn't sleep and my husband didn't sleep. It was very rigorous.'

Still, she notes, flexibility is possible. 'More and more companies in America have seen that it's much better to work with women who have families than to lose them.'

Not that all is hunky dory for women on Wall Street. They are still rare in the top echelons of the biggest banks, and Forbes magazine last year featured the cases of some up-and-coming women bankers who claimed they were unfairly terminated during the downturn.

Ms Peetz feels there is no glass ceiling as such but subscribes to the 2007 thesis put forward by Northwestern University researcher Alice Eagly and her Wellesley College counterpart Linda Carli.

This argued that women face a series of obstacles - like familial responsibilities that cut into the time needed for networking - which, in turn, leads them down dead ends in their pursuit of the C-suite.

She thinks women also simply do not realise that they need business experience to get to the top.

'The biggest thing holding women back at the moment is that not enough of them get actual profit-and-loss, business-line experience,' says Ms Peetz.

These women tend to advance in their respective fields until they realise - too late - they don't have the experience overseeing teams and looking after bottom lines needed to go further.

She also believes that women do not tell their bosses what assignments they want, even though this is something they should do even before that job opportunity comes up.

'Often, if you don't plant the seed of 'this is what I'd like', then you can become the subject of assumptions: she doesn't want it; she has a family; she'll never move there; she isn't interested.'

Ms Peetz makes no bones about what she wants. While working for her former employer, Chemical Bank (now part of JPMorgan Chase & Co), she set her sights on overseas experience.

In 1996 - when her twins were 10 - she convinced her bosses to let her head a business unit in London.

Later, she realised that she wanted her boss' job. Since this was not forthcoming, she moved to BNY Mellon, which eventually acquired the Chase unit she had originally wanted to lead.

Those trying to scale the ladder can help themselves by cultivating mentors and 'sponsors'.

She differentiates the two roles: A mentor is someone senior who might say, 'Do this a little more like this, a little more like that', while a sponsor is someone powerful enough to 'make things happen for you'. The latter, essentially, opens doors that you cannot open on your own. Both are equally important.

Ultimately, when women do well, their companies win. She points to research by Catalyst, a New York-based organisation that looks into women and diversity at the workplace, that found a link between women on companies' management teams and corporate performance.

She thinks companies should strive not just to have more women in its top ranks, but also a 'diversity of people, no matter whether it's in terms of ethnicity or sexual orientation'. This, she says, creates 'diversity of thought'.

'If you have just one type of person, whether you had all women, or men, or people of one persuasion, you don't have as much diversity of thought, so you could theoretically have more risky behaviour.'

The company also would not be able to understand its markets as well, nor be as sensitive to employees' needs, she notes.

'That makes diversity more than just a nice-to-have. That makes it a business imperative.'

[email protected]

This article was first published in The Straits Times.

readers' comments

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Co. Regn. No. 198402868E. All rights reserved.