Celebrating the undeniable strength, power and will of women in the credit union system
2020 started as a bright, beautiful new year, new decade and new day for the future of women. Glass ceilings were being shattered or broken rungs were being fixed (depending on which theory you support) at major corporations, universities, government entities and in financial services. We were on a roll, confidence building that barriers could come down, and we could all push for progress as the need was clear. At CUNA’s Governmental Affairs Conference, Global Women’s Leadership Network’s breakfast had the highest attendance ever and shined the light on members by celebrating growth, achievement and international impact.
In March, the darkness hit. We witnessed an unprecedented new reality—one full of uncertainty and unknowns. Everything was shut down worldwide, jobs were lost and healthcare became the greatest concern for all humanity. First there was panic, and critical safety issues needed to be addressed: food, shelter and basic necessities. On the other side of the panic, there were practical matters to worry about. Children were not in school and needed virtual teachers. Grandparents in retirement centers were unable to physically connect with their families as the days of isolation kept increasing. Women were particularly hit by the pandemic because they were the ones expected to care for the family. Women lost their jobs. And there were many women at the epicenter as first responders saving lives.
We were all stunned and overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the issues we faced individually when a communal voice started to rise: “WE ARE STRONGER TOGETHER.” Our new reality brought forth the undeniable strength, power and will of women in the credit union system. Within weeks, we activated our network and GWLN began to reach out virtually. What was once a localized, in-person network exploded into virtual workshops and meetings with international audiences, mental health conversations and working-from-home resource-sharing with women participating from six continents—all hit by COVID-19 and all facing similar risks.
The augmented connectivity and access to each other across borders became a phenomenon and more women joined—to be part of something special, but also to listen for stories of hope, inspiration and encouragement to tackle the unforeseen challenges ahead while keeping an eye on their ultimate destination.
“World Council of Credit Unions serves more than 291,000,000 members, and by extension, credit unions touch a billion people globally,” says Susan Mitchell, GWLN founding volunteer chair and CEO of Mitchell, Stankovic & Associates. “Now is the time for credit unions to shine their light on the good being done for real people.”
Although we miss the hugs, laughter and hallway conversations that come with in-person conferences, in 2020, GWLN engaged virtually with hundreds of women and men around the world, including in Australia, Asia, Africa, Europe, South America, and in almost all regions of North America.
Over 130 local sister societies came together worldwide in solidarity to solve issues within their communities. Through the work of the Worldwide Foundation for Credit Unions, we monitored the impact of typhoons, fires, hurricanes and losses. We shared tears but were always resolute in our determination that credit unions are the answer in people helping people. We stepped up to help those in most need, and we offered programming that had real impact. Some of the highlights include:
- Sister Societies growth and our global reach;
- World Council/GWLN were founding members of the CU DEI Collective;
- Meetings that tackled mental health, resilience during transition and crisis, COVID-19 and caretakers, change agents in today’s environment and a focus on the future;
- HE for SHE growth in membership, with men now representing 15% of GWLN membership;
- Alliance partner with the African-American Credit Union Coalition;
- The first virtual Executive Readiness Summit with participants from Africa, Asia, Europe, South America and the U.S.; and
- Partnering with the Australian Women in Mutuals group, a network of employees in the mutual industry.
GWLN is facing the future head on with a firm belief that we are making a difference. “Our GWLN strategy session hosted leaders from all continents, and we established goals for 2021 that will bring GWLN to all 50 United States and see expansion in Sister Societies throughout the six continents,” notes Lena Giakoumopoulos, GWLN program director. “We know that membership is critical to build scale, apply for grants and to form alliances with other organizations in order to push toward a world where women know no limits.”
The next step is for the HE for SHE movement, for men to step forward and support our SHE for SHEs to ensure the momentum continues for women of color, students, single moms, etc. Lifetime inequality leaves women who care for children (during a pandemic or not), care for parents and care for their credit unions with a lifetime of less. Being off work (whether by choice or circumstance) disrupts a woman’s ability to earn, so accrued compensation makes retirement just a dream. This creates a vicious cycle where the next generations want leadership positions, but legacy leaders can't retire. What to do?
In 2021, GWLN will focus on growing our pipeline of leaders and engaging with our colleagues to face issues that are locally, nationally and globally impacting women. We know these same issues can destroy our individual “villages.” We remember that GWLN is a shining light for the world. It represents hope, the best of humans and an opportunity to demonstrate that when credit union people step in, lives change. Join us!
Lena Giakoumopoulos is program director of GWLN and Susan Mitchell is the GWLN Volunteer Chair and CEO of Mitchell, Stankovic & Associates.