The death of Melanie Dressel, longtime president and CEO of Tacoma’s Columbia Bank, was sudden and sad. But stories of Dressel’s success, shared in countless tributes after her passing in February at age 64, seemed to give testimony to how far women have advanced over a generation.
Here was a woman who took her first banking job in 1974 — at a Tacoma financial institution under federal orders to diversify, no less. Through hard work that earned the trust of male peers, Dressel rose to the corner office 17 years ago. At the time of her death, she ran a company with $9 billion in assets and more than 140 branches in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.
And she did it in a place where women are coming into their own as prominent leaders. They occupy both of Washington’s U.S. senator posts, fill most of the seats in the state House of Representatives, and hold important local positions such as Tacoma mayor and Pierce Transit CEO.
From this should we surmise that women have fully arrived, that the infamous glass ceiling lies in shards? Hardly. The potential of top female leaders remains woefully untapped throughout the private and public sectors.
That’s why one of Dressel’s most valuable legacies will be a Center for Women’s Leadership at University of Washington Tacoma. Her husband, Bob, handed over a check for $1 million to launch the center during an emotional presentation at a recent fundraising soiree at UWT.
School officials say they’re planning for up to eight Melanie Dressel Leadership Scholars with scholarships each year beginning in 2018, in conjunction with the Milgard School of Business and the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences.
In addition to programs and mentorships for college students, outreach ideas include a community leadership academy, training for local organizations and a summit for high school students — an across-the-board approach to empower and embolden women around the South Sound.
Columbia Bank has contributed another $400,000, as UWT seeks to raise a baseline of $5 million in private support for the center. It’s a feasible goal to help reverse a chronic historical problem: women being held back from professional roles they could excel at.
Female leaders hold only 32 CEO positions in U.S. Fortune 500 companies — a paltry 6.4 percent of the total. And while women account for 46 percent of entry-level professionals, they decline to 29 percent of vice presidents and plunge to 19 percent of corporate chief executives.
The failure to elevate women to top offices is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Regardless of proven competence, they’re often not entrusted with leadership of the future by dint of not being entrusted with it in the past.
For all her faults, Hillary Clinton spoke credibly about this tendency at the recent Women in the World summit. She speculated that misogyny, both latent and overt, helped tip the electoral scales toward Donald Trump because “he looks like somebody who’s been president before.”
Dressel, who was known for her optimism, had this to say in a piece she wrote for American Banker magazine in 2013:
“At banking functions, the vast majority of the people in the chairs in front of me are men. This used to frustrate me, but I actually see opportunity. As current company leaders begin to consider retirement, I hope we can all encourage our younger coworkers, our daughters and granddaughters, to see this opportunity and be ready to ascend to upper level management positions.”
With a boost from the new Tacoma leadership center developed in her memory, Dressel’s vision could very well be realized.