A payments-industry pioneer reflects on combating gender bias

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When asked to discuss the corporate gender gap, Linda Perry paused, just long enough to be noticeable in 30-minute phone conversation. She took that moment to ponder how pervasive predatory behavior remains inside the workplace — and how to address it as both an issue of culture and as a business challenge.

"Nobody in the business would say 'we don't care' about security of payments data. It's an impossible thing to deny as important. It's one of the same things that you say when you think about people working in a safe environment," said Perry, a founder of the Women's Network in Electronic Transactions (Wnet). Perry has worked in the payments industry for more than three decades, including 17 years as a Visa executive.

Wnet, a 13-year-old Wakefield, Mass.-based nonprofit with about 1,000 members, offers mentorship, advice and networking services for women in the payments industry. Its work has long provided a place for women to discuss sexual harassment and other inappropriate workplace behavior, a problem that has become a national reckoning given the high-profile dismissals of men such as Harvey Weinstein, Bill O'Reilly, Matt Lauer and scores of other across entertainment, politics, media and other industries.

In the financial services industry, Bank of America executive Omeed Malik recently departed following claims of misconduct, with the bank coming under fire for claims it tried to keep the departure quiet. And Visa late last year dismissed executive Jim McCarthy, reportedly after CEO Alfred Kelly received reports of "romances" between McCarthy and female employees, according to The Wall Street Journal.

It's hard to measure the impact of sexual harassment across all industries, partly because much of the loss is intangible—there's a fallout from a general culture of fear inside organizations that can impair talent development for years. But given the size of some of the payouts to settle lawsuits, it's not unreasonable to estimate the problem's cost to U.S. business is in the billions of dollars in legal settlements.

Since 85% of women say they have been harassed at work, it's an economic and social problem that's large enough and cuts across enough of society to be immune from any counter argument, according to Perry.

"It's one of those things in life that where something's just so obvious and true that you can't feel anybody can argue against it," Perry said. "CEOs who are men ought to worry about these unnecessary costs to their business. This is costing us money."

And while it's hard to find a person outside of political media who will counter the idea that sexual harassment in and of itself is a problem, there remains a severe gender gap that suggests a lingering patriarchal culture and lack of diversity, which can contribute to problems such as sexual harassment.

Financial services has the largest gender pay gap among U.S. industries, and technology is third. These two industries cover much of the job market in payments. In the banking industry, which covers many of the payments industry's major card issuers and acquirers, men run most of the largest companies.

One way to push back is to increase gender and racial diversity on boards and management teams to counter patriarchal culture, Perry said. Wnet is pushing for more inclusion and gender diversity, and career development and mentorship programs can increase gender diversity and address pay gaps.

Wnet is also seeking more participation from men. "We try to be the outside voice for people vs. the inside the company voice," Perry said.

And these discussions often tie into workplace safety and behavioral issues.

Today, more women feel comfortable discussing sexual harassment—Perry recently ran a panel discussion on innovation in payments and the discussion quickly turned to sexual harassment. "These stories are coming out now," she said.

Perry has had a career in the financial services industry that dates to the late 1970s, having worked as an executive at Visa for 17 years in merchant acquiring roles, was a co-founder of the Global Acquiring Conference and has also worked for Citigroup (when it was called Citicorp), Michigan National Bank and ISTS Worldwide. Perry, who has been honored for multiple years as one of PaymentsSource's Most Influential Women in Payments, is credited with improving relations between Visa and independent sales organizations.

In one of Perry's most recent roles, she was a director on The Electronic Transactions Association's board for 13 years during which she pushed the association to increase its female management and overall membership.

"Linda is a pioneer in bringing diversity to the payments industry. She was on the board when there was only one woman on the board," said Jaxon Oxman, CEO of ETA.

Today, more than a half-dozen of the ETA's roughly 30 members are currently women. "The work continues, and there is a lot of work to do," Oxman said.

The ETA has formed new programs to mentor younger professionals, including "40 under 40," which is specifically geared toward diversity in the payments industry.

"Today, 65% of staff of ETA is female," Oxman said. "I don't know what that was ten years ago, but it was a lot smaller."

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