Women in Compliance: 4 Critical Tips for Career Advancement

October 21, 2022

Over the last few decades, the compliance world has transitioned from being largely male-dominated into what can be considered a fairly even playing field. In fact, in 2022, 51% of compliance officers are female. 

However, there are still many challenges facing women who hold compliance titles, including glaring pay gaps and the perception that compliance is still mainly a boys club where women must abide by separate rules. 

That’s why, during our stay in Las Vegas for the annual ACAMS conference, we hosted a “Women in Compliance” fireside chat featuring Lisa Lechner (the CCO of Mercari) and Unit21’s own, Trisha Kothari.

At this intimate happy hour, they discussed several critical tips that women should be aware of while building successful careers in compliance. 

Here, we’ll recap some of the key takeaways from the event, including insights about:

  • The realities of workplace perceptions
  • Common pitfalls to avoid, and
  • How to position yourself as a desirable candidate for career advancement 

Let’s jump in.

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Building a Successful Career in Compliance: 4 Tips for Women

Have Tenacity, But Pick Your Battles

One of the first crucial pieces of advice offered up by Lisa during the talk was that women should not be afraid to be bold, have tenacity, and fight for what they need to do their jobs effectively. 

“Be tenacious about your career and about the projects you believe in. Don’t accept ‘no’ if it is something you believe in. Try a different approach or a different angle to get it done. It may take years but don’t lose sight of that goal.”

One caveat is that a woman in compliance should pick her battles wisely. 

“Understand the trade-offs and be reasonable. In a compliance role, especially at a start-up, compliance must be seen as a business enabler. If there is a large GMV target that must be achieved for instance, compliance projects may need to be prioritized against. The company revenue v cost savings, so you need to be creative. Can the project be broken into phases or addressed manually until some resources are available? If there is anything you can do to turn a risky project to a ‘yes, if,’ compliance can be seen as that enabler rather than a cost center.”

With that in mind, it’s important to choose the battles that will be the easiest to win and most impactful in the short and long term for your department and career. 

Seek Opportunities to Grow 

Moving up the ranks in compliance is just as much about being an expert operator in a key job area as it is about a willingness to learn new applicable skills. 

Lisa’s career is filled with varied experiences: she worked in large organizations as well as startups. She began her journey in payments and then moved into banking. She found opportunities and took the initiative to go after them, all of which contributed to making her a desirable leadership candidate down the line.

Along the same vein, Lisa recommends taking on new or special projects as a way to showcase your ambition and interest in career growth. 

“Volunteer for special projects when you can. Don’t expect anything other than learning a new skill in return. It will help get you recognized both cross-functionally and by leadership when something does come around. Careers are not just about moving up the ladder, so you may need to look at other departments that are lateral or take a step down or look externally while you are on that journey. Great leaders have exposure to many different areas and are not siloed in their expertise.”

Stepping outside of your comfort zone is beneficial for becoming more adaptable - if the opportunity presents itself, Lisa advises that it be explored.

“If something makes you a little nervous, you should do it. Projects that take you outside of your comfort zone help you develop new skills. It rounds you out, makes you more marketable and can open up doors to move horizontally or vertically as you contemplate career moves. Don’t expect those opportunities to be handed to you.” 

Use Data to Your Advantage

When it comes to being persuasive, respected, and revered in your career, it is critical to know how to find and use data to support your viewpoints. Trisha and Lisa spent a good deal of time explaining the importance of building airtight, data-driven arguments when vying for things like more budget, increased headcount, or even a promotion. 

Unfortunately, in Lisa’s experience, women have a more difficult time swaying opinions, even when they have the data to back up their claims. As a result, the arguments that women make must be supported by strong evidence to garner favor from their male counterparts.

“You will be questioned in compliance. Know your data. Know your metrics. Know how much your department is costing or saving the company. If you are no longer the one pulling that data it is still important to understand it and to question it. Compliance data can sometimes be hard to quantify but it is very important as you will continuously need to show your value.”

On top of this, it is a common mistake for women in professional settings to use language that doesn’t instill confidence. Starting sentences with soft verbiage like “I feel” can, unfortunately, come off as weak or emotional and should be avoided in most cases where building a perception of power is desired.  

Understand What You Are Willing to Sacrifice 

The last point that Lisa reflected on during her talk with Trisha was that, as a woman, you have to be aware of the sacrifices you may have to make to get to the top. You have to accept them or draw the line with the understanding of the implications of those decisions. 

“We try as women to have it all. But you will sacrifice something the more you advance your career. Know what it is you are willing to sacrifice. It may be time with family, friends, missing that game, putting that hobby aside, deciding who is the breadwinner for your family. If you are not willing to make those concessions, then it may be determining what type of a career you want to pursue.” 

Things have become sugar-coated in our society about what it takes to be a woman in a high-power career and what kind of guilt she may have to deal with when making decisions about who she wants to be. This dishonesty is still a common thread that professional women see in the workplace, regardless of the industry or field. 

“We put enormous pressures on ourselves about achieving it all and feel that guilt when we fall short. It is a myth. If you draw the line and realize this is the line for me, this is the trade-off I can make at this point in time it can help with that burden. Know where that line is for you and more importantly, what sacrifice is too much.”

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Lisa Lechner is a compliance professional with direct experience in strategy/policy development, project management, product, and operational execution, and payments processing infrastructure. She is specialized in business consultation and analysis of new financial products and regulatory changes, and has a proven track record of developing high-performing teams. 

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