In 2018, I attended my first industry conference as a newly minted COO. I showed up at the Ritz-Carlton Dana Point with a bounce in my step and a modern red dress, excited about how the conference would help me learn and grow. But as I walked into the main conference room, I suddenly felt out of place. Looking around the room, all I saw were 80 black and blue suits with no women in sight.

I sheepishly found a table to sit at, regretting my dress selection and thinking to myself, “Do I even belong here?” As the sessions started, I took another look around the room and counted three other women in attendance. Maybe it was naivety, or maybe I’m an idealist, but I did not expect women to be “missing” from the executive list. Still, in that moment, I felt the importance of my presence, decided to sit tall in my seat, and owned the fact that I was at the table in a room full of men and therefore was going to be part of the change.

Fast-forward to my first speaking engagement at Bob Veres’s Insider’s Forum in 2019, where I presented to a room of mostly female operations managers and COOs on building an operations team. The environment by this point had changed, or at least I thought it had. After the session, I was flooded with questions like, “How do you get the men on your leadership team to respect you?” or, “In my role as a COO, I am treated like a glorified secretary, but I have good ideas that are going unheard. What should I do?”

It was heartbreaking, but also a little hopeful. Just a year before, I was at a conference with almost no women; now, there were women showing up. We just needed their voices to be amplified and respected. But I kept asking myself, “How were we going to influence that change?”

Today, I know the answer to that question—it happens with representation. Thinking back on the last five years, my level of gratitude is abundant for the women who have stood up, walked on stage after stage, and shared their voices at conferences and on social platforms. I want to recognize the industry consultants (Lindsey Lewis, Kahne Krause, Ashley Ilardo, to name a few) who have created platforms for women to express themselves. In addition, I feel it is important to highlight some of the women who persevered through the career tracks of advisory firms to get to where they are today, spearheading change as shining examples of representation for women.

CEOs like Heather Fortner, Kamila Elliott, Lauren Oschman, Neela Hummel and Mary Beth Storjohann have risen to the top through humility, kindness, authenticity and a true sense of purpose. All these women have their own stories of tribulation and triumph that show it’s possible for women to hold the most powerful positions in an organization. Their leadership style reminds us that CEOs don’t need to be egotistical or iron-fisted. They do need to be strong, persuasive and competent, and these women are. You can be even more effective if you focus your energy on empowering an organization by loving the people who are under your charge, and thoughtfully leading with openness, transparency and a vision that benefits clients, team members and their communities.

I’d also like to acknowledge the amazing COOs who have broken the glass ceiling of “glorified secretary” and hold true power and responsibility at the table. Women like Yonhee Gordon, whom I see as a trailblazer for women in financial services. She was one of the first to step on stage and showcase the power of a female leader. Susan Dickson, who is now retired, was also one of the first women to redefine what it means to be “second in command” and lead with a heart for the culture, not just the business. There are so many more COOs who are making a significant impact through their drive, humble strength and determination to run organizations that build the team and culture for an amazing client experience. Thank you for all you do: Kara Armstrong, Martha Post, Kristi de Grys and Channing Olson.

And finally, I want to thank the chief marketing officers who have completely disrupted this industry over the past two years. Back in 2018, at my first conference, a marketing department was reserved for only the select few. But women like Cammie Doder, Abby Tuke and Angela Giombetti have greatly influenced the evolution of the CMO role at advisory firms. They are not only showcasing their firms with sophistication and grace, they are also showing up outside the four walls. Cammie hosts a podcast that reminds all of us to take better care of ourselves, and Angela is showing up at many industry events, paving a way for future CMOs to do the same.

These women have all pushed past barriers and started changing the face of advisory firms. While women are still holding only about 20% of leadership roles within financial services, I can feel the change happening. This industry is moving forward from the “boys club” of the past and embracing the benefits of gender equality. There is so much to be gained from equal representation, including the following lessons we can learn from the women who have paved the way:

1. Compassion, empathy and care are traits of strong leaders. Future generations are not going to stand for aggression, malicious behavior or dictatorships. People want to be treated well and feel cared for in their place of work.

2. “Diversity of thought” leads to better outcomes. When you put a group of like-minded people together, you get status quo results. As firms learn to value and incorporate more powerful women into leadership roles, they’ll find that their ideas and strategies become more creative, thoughtful and innovative.

3. We need to promote women out of the glorified secretary role. One of the biggest challenges women face in advisory firms is that they are really good administrators, so they aren’t given the opportunity to move up or forward because there are fears that their replacements won’t be as good. This is unacceptable. Our industry has to acknowledge the unknown and embrace the possibilities.

In the last five years, financial advisory firms have changed for the better. I’m proud that we now have advisors and leaders who represent the clients we serve, but there is still opportunity for women to have more of a leadership presence. We must continue thinking outside the box, give opportunities to more women to shine, be a light for others, and focus on representation. If we want to best serve our clients, now and in the future, we must continue changing the face of advisory firms to include more women, which will in turn achieve greater gender equality throughout the industry.

Stacey McKinnon, CFP, is chief operating officer, chief marketing officer and partner at Morton Wealth.