Part one of a two-part series on women in banking.

Agnes Bundy Scanlan is crafting privacy policy at FleetBoston Financial, the eighth largest commercial bank in the country. But on a business trip to Utica, N.Y., the 5-foot-6-inch Scanlan remembers a community member calling her ‘little lady.’

Amy Hunter leads the residential mortgage division of Boston Private Bank & Trust Co., a $4 billion company. But after she completed her MBA at a prestigious New England university, she gained her first job not because of her credentials but because she could type 60 words a minute.

Women have clearly made strides in the financial services field, when just decades ago they were rarely promoted beyond the teller line. But a recent roundtable discussion by members of The Boston Club, an organization of women executives, concluded that there’s still room for improvement.

Although Scanlan’s encounter in Utica was not with a member of her company, it troubled her nonetheless.

“I just said ‘I prefer to go by the name Agnes,'” Scanlan said.

Hunter’s typing test occurred in 1985, when the economy was in a slump and job hunting was tough.

“I think that if I was a man that particular situation wouldn’t have happened,” Hunter said.

Although many women have gained high-profile banking jobs, few women have risen in the ranks of large commercial banks. A 1999 study by the Financial Women International Foundation reported that none of the country’s top 50 banks have a female chief executive and only two have women as chief financial officers. Of the top management listed in the banks’ annual reports, only 13 percent are women.

Banker & Tradesman put this question to the roundtable participants: Is there still a glass ceiling for women in banking?

“I think it still exists,” said Michele Adams Bolden, director of the Office of Diversity at FleetBoston. “I think it’s almost like an elevator that goes up and down. If the market is tight like it is, the glass ceiling is a little higher than it used to be, and during tough times it’s probably lower than it was.”

As director of diversity, Bolden works with the company’s senior executive team and business line managers on issues of fair treatment in the workplace. She worked in the insurance industry for 15 years before entering banking. In both fields, she said, a large number of employees are women but few women are at the top levels of companies.

“When you work in an industry that is fairly regulated you tend not to think too much out of the box, so you tend to look for the person that is most like you,” Bolden said.

With a strong economy and low unemployment, competency rather than gender determines success at work, Hunter said. But having lived through job hunting in the mid-1980s, she won’t rule out the same thing happening again if the economy takes a nosedive.

Susan Gunderson has a different story. She joined Fiduciary Trust Co. in Boston in 1976, when the company was actively recruiting women. She is a vice president and a director of the company.

“My firm was looking to promote women really for political reasons when I joined in 1976,” Gunderson said. “I don’t think it would have occurred to them except for the women’s movement and affirmative action.”

While the corporate glass ceiling may not be as much of an issue as it was during the women’s movement of the 1970s, the women executives said they still feel they must perform better than men to advance. In addition, it is difficult to hold down a senior level position and have time for family obligations, they said.

Workplace culture is the most important factor in whether women become effective leaders in a company, according to a joint research project of The Radcliffe Public Policy Institute and The Boston Club. The study, titled “Suiting Themselves: Women’s Leadership Styles in Today’s Workplace,” surveyed 453 women, including members of The Boston Club and Radcliffe alumnae.

Overall few women said they have to work harder and longer than their male colleagues to gain leadership positions (8 percent). Many more women of color, 41.2 percent, said they must work harder and put in more hours to advance in their firms.

Vivian Wenhuey Chen Huang admits to feeling this way. She is president of the $65 million-asset Asian American Bank & Trust Co., which opened in 1993 and has three branches.

“I always have the notion that I cannot afford to make any mistakes,” Huang said. “On the other hand, I don’t hold that to my women employees.”

The women in the Boston study said that balancing work and family was a challenge, but not a roadblock to their careers. Some women raising families do not want to log the long hours required of senior level executives, but the point is they should be given the choice, Gunderson said.

“Women want to work and have careers, but so few of us really want to work a 60-, 70-hour week,” Gunderson said. “[That] is why I think in some ways you see fewer women at the top, because who wants to?”

Scanlan, a new mother with a five-month-old daughter, has been able to balance work and family since returning from her maternity leave in May. Her husband, a university professor, has a flexible schedule that allows him to spend time at home. In addition, the couple hired a nanny who they found through Fleet’s Work Life program.

At Boston Private Bank & Trust, Hunter’s flexible schedule allows her to make time for family.

“The mortgage lending area allows flexibility in terms of where you are at any given time,” Hunter said. “You may be meeting with clients in the evening, but in the afternoon you can take your daughter to ballet.”

Keys to Success
There are still areas in banking that are considered women’s jobs, roundtable participants said, including communications, marketing and Community Reinvestment Act compliance. When Scanlan spoke with a mentor about how to gain a seat on a corporate board, he told her “Make sure you’re doing something at Fleet that a man would do.”

Scanlan and Bolden credited having mentors with helping them advance in their careers. Both have had men and women as mentors, encouraging them or helping them sound out ideas. This kind of informal mentoring is important in helping women advance, the Boston study found. Seventy percent of respondents said that informal mentoring is a factor in developing leadership.

To ensure that more women advance in banking, it is important for companies to create a pipeline for mid-level officials to move up. That requires a conscious effort by the company. The Boston Co. has started an initiative to help women executives find places on corporate and nonprofit boards. From the boardroom they will be able to direct policy and set a tone from the top that encourages women in the workplace.

Banks were the largest segment of companies recognized for having three or more women on their corporate boards. Fleet and Boston Private Bank have three women on their boards, Fiduciary Trust has five and the Asian American Bank & Trust has six. The increasing number of women in high positions is encouraging to Bolden as she pursues a career in diversity.

“I’m hopeful that there won’t be a glass ceiling, maybe in 20 years,” she said.

Women Executives Search For Opportunities at the Top

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 5 min