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A frank assessment of women in banking

Time for women to take charge?

Blogger Marian Exall wonders when the issue of women in banking will settle down to something like normality. Some well-intentioned efforts actually work against women, and some battles are, surprisingly, still being fought. Blogger Marian Exall wonders when the issue of women in banking will settle down to something like normality. Some well-intentioned efforts actually work against women, and some battles are, surprisingly, still being fought.

This may raise some hackles, which is unusual for me. I’m normally conflict-avoiding—I hope you didn’t miss that October was Conflict Resolution Month—and I like bright-line rules: compliance/non-compliance.

But an interview given by Robert Redford caught my eye, and started me thinking about women in banking.

Redford’s interview with CNN was given during the recent government shutdown and debt limit crisis. I think he was supposed to be promoting his new film, but instead he waxed eloquent on the need for men to hand over the reins of power to women and the young, who he thought could do it better. 

Getting a seat at the table

It has been my privilege to know several highly successful women bankers over the years, and I heartily applaud the appointment of Janet Yellen, clearly the most qualified candidate, to chair the Federal Reserve. However, the fact that her gender was an issue shows we still have a long way to go.

All too often, and especially in community banks, “women in banking” mean tellers and customer service reps. If women do attain bank officer positions, they are typically in human resources or similar “staff” functions. Where are the female Chief Financial Officers, Chief Lending Officers and, yes, Chief Executive Officers?

Yes, there has been progress. But when will banks be gender blind?

I know human resources is important. I should do, having devoted a good chunk of my career to it.  We are constantly being told “our people are our greatest asset.” Yet I know from experience that it is rare for the (female) vice-president of HR to get a seat at the table where the important decisions about the future of the bank are being made.

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, in her book Lean In,  about gender inequality in the workplace, tells women to take risks and act confidently, to be your “authentic self” at work. Yet women are caught in a double-bind: We’re socialized from birth to be sweet and nurturing, not often qualities found in a bank CEO.

Biology trumps all?

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The unalterable fact is that women have the babies; men don’t. It is a very rare woman who can treat childbirth like an appendectomy: two weeks off work, then avoid heavy lifting for a while. We want to be with our children; we feel conflicted about leaving them with even the best daycare solution, assuming we can afford it.

Another article I read recently by Anne-Marie Slaughter in Atlantic Magazine concludes that women still can’t have it all. It’s time to stop fooling ourselves: Only the superhuman, rich or self-employed can be mothers and top professionals at the same time. 

Chickens, eggs, carrots and sticks

Even if you don’t agree with me and Robert Redford that the world would be a better place with women in charge, notions of fairness and equality suggest that women should be in more leadership positions. How do we get there?

Sandberg advocates forming “Lean In” circles at work: women encouraging and supporting other women in their struggle to advance. How would that go down at your bank?

Having a powerful mentor might help, but here we hit the “chicken and egg” problem. There’s a dearth of female mentors, and males are often reluctant to sponsor up-and-coming women for advancement for fear of it looking like sexual favoritism.

Some large financial institutions (Citigroup, for example) have overcome this fear by setting up formal sponsorship programs: senior managers are required to mentor female and minority candidates, following established paradigms, and are evaluated on this important part of their leadership duties.

What doesn’t help: Affirmative Action

Since Executive Order 11246 was signed in 1965, banks with more than 50 employees have been required to establish goals to correct any underutilization of women. “Underutilization” is measured by comparing the number of women in each of the bank’s job groups with census figures showing the availability of qualified women for those positions in the wider population.

Here we meet the chicken-and-egg problem again: If the census figures show only a few women in senior financial industry positions, it isn’t difficult to show that women are not underutilized in senior positions at the bank.

I don’t mean to underestimate the progress women have made since 1965, it’s just that this particular regulatory mandate hasn’t particularly helped them in banking.

Gender pay equality: A baby step in the right direction

One legal “stick” that I think is effective is the Equal Pay Act, and the enforcement efforts of government agencies such as the OFCCP in their “Glass Ceiling” initiative.

In doing compliance assessments of community banks, I have often come across situations where women are being paid less than men, in spite of having the same job title. There may be legitimate reasons for this:

• Although the job title is nominally the same, they are actually doing completely different jobs.

• They are doing the same job, but the man has greater seniority in the position.

• They are doing the same job, but by objective measures the man’s performance is better.

Unfortunately, the reasons I am frequently provided for the discrepancy are not legitimate, and perpetuate stereotypes that prevent women from reaching their potential:

• “He wouldn’t take the job unless we paid him $!!!!!, and he was the candidate we wanted.”

• “He has a stay-at-home wife and three children; she’s a single woman and much younger.”

• “Although his current job doesn’t give him a chance to show it, we have a really good feeling about this young man!”

Gender pay discrepancies are rarely the result of overt intentional discrimination.

However, they are embarrassing and expensive to fix. 

I recommend that banks do a regular gender pay analysis to identify any creeping problems, not just to avoid legal liability, but also because I firmly believe in the biblical tenet “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

In other words, if leadership consciously invests money in women, it will protect and nurture that investment.

No bright lines

You can’t force women into leadership roles, or bludgeon men into accepting women in charge with legal mandates.

One day, half the Board of Directors will be female, but not tomorrow.

One day, the CEO’s husband who stays home with the kids will not be the exception, but commonplace. I have no prescriptions, no bright-line rules, only the conviction that women, ultimately, are unstoppable.

Tell me what’s happening at your bank to help gender equality. How did you get a seat at the table?

Another chance

If you missed the ABA telephone briefing last month on new affirmative action obligations for protected veterans and individuals with disabilities—which is available as a recording—you can catch a similar presentation on Nov. 14. For more information, open the link and click on your state.

Marian Exall

Marian Exall ( recently retired after a long career as an employment lawyer and HR professional with more than 25 years' experience advising banks and other employers on compliance issues. She was a principal and co-founder of Employment Law Compliance, Inc. which provides HR compliance solutions to banks. For more information on this or other employment compliance topics, please call Employment Law Compliance at 866-801-6302 or go to

Now retired from blogging as well, Marian also writes fiction. Her latest novel is a mystery called A Slippery Slope. For more information and to order, go to

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