When Kris Compton was early in her career in the financial services industry, she would come home from work at 6 p.m., enjoy time with her family, put the kids to bed and then get back to work until 2 a.m.

“I did what I had to do in order to be respected as a woman in the industry,” said Compton, now chief strategy officer for Alerus.

Often the only woman, Compton said she struggled with being a working mother.

“I sometimes felt rather alone because I was the only woman on our team at the time so I had to juggle different meetings, staying late, getting projects done and I had to juggle my family life while getting all those things done,” Compton said.

According to a study from the University of California Davis, women account for only 18% of finance jobs, less than in STEM fields.

Alerus’ executive team is made up of four women and one man.

“Alerus would absolutely be an outlier,” said Katie Lorenson, chief financial officer for Alerus.

Lorenson, Compton, Chief Business Officer Ann McConn, Chief Risk Officer Karin Taylor and CEO Randy Newman make up the team.

Katherine Campbell, chair of the accounting department at UND, said the lack of women in finance jobs is “a pretty persistent problem.”

“Nobody really knows what the problem is. There is a lot of research on it, but it certainly is pervasive,” Campbell said. “So an executive board like Alerus’ would be pretty unusual.”

Breaking the norm

While the gender gap has improved in the 45 years Compton has worked in the industry, she remembers being the only woman at the table for many years.

“I really have never known anything different, other than to be one of the few women in the industry,” Compton said.

McConn, who started her career with Alerus in Grand Forks but then moved to Fargo, echoed that.

“It just became the norm. It was actually unusual for me at times to walk into a room where there were other women, especially the first half of my career,” McConn said.

The bar was set higher for women then, both said.

“There were certainly times early in my career where I definitely felt like I had to come to work more prepared than my male colleagues, whether it was self imposed or real,” Compton said. “I felt that I wouldn't be taken seriously. I wouldn't be able to establish credibility and respect unless I came extremely well prepared with issues and topics really well thought out. I just had to be on top of my game all the time.”

McConn said inherent biases on traditional mens’ roles and womens’ roles play into this.

“We have to perform a little bit better than maybe a male in the same position because of that inherent bias that we all have,” McConn said. “Strong women are viewed differently than a strong man. Strong women can be viewed as negative and its positive for a man to be strong. The expectation is just a little bit higher. I think women have had to work a little harder.”

Lorenson, who is 39 and has been working with Alerus about 18 months, said she’s been fortunate to have come up in an era where women were more equal in the workplace.

“I had opportunity to never think about it that way because I think the world was already evolving when I entered the workforce,” Lorenson said.

Forging the path for younger women

Compton said the executive team benefits from being majority women because of the way women communicate.

“Women naturally put more emphasis on relationships, ensuring as we work through tough issues that we deal with the issue itself and the relationship and personal dynamics as well,” Compton said. “I think that makes for better feedback and a better team.”

McConn said there is better dialogue in the group.

“Not to put anyone in a box, but I think our nature as women is to explore things a little deeper and ask more questions. So I think there is more discussion,” McConn said.

While the financial industry, and many others, have a ways to go in terms of the gender gap, Campbell said the good news is that the problem is being acknowledged and actively addressed.

“It’s been fun for me to sort of forge this path and see the younger leaders having a little easier time getting into those roles,” McConn said. “Younger women are able to come in with a whole different sense of what it means to be a woman in a leadership role today, because of some of the forging we were able to do over the years and the examples we were able to set. Women can be leaders; they can be good leaders.”