Five of the most powerful women in banking appeared alongside American Banker Editor-at-Large Barbara Rehm on CNBC Wednesday morning, talking about their careers and trends in the businesses they oversee.

They pointed to a slow but discernible improvement in the economy. Diane Reyes, global head of payments in the global transaction services division at Citigroup Inc., reported a pickup in payments volumes, led by Asia. Susan Ehrlich, president of Sears Financial Services, said shoppers at Sears and other retailers are spending money, but mainly on planned purchases rather than spontaneous ones.

Shelaghmichael Brown, head of retail banking at BBVA Compass, has seen the same trends from a different angle.

"We used to spend and then pay. And now the shift is, we save and then spend. So you don't have that same increase in credit," said Brown, one of the 25 most powerful women in banking as determined by US Banker.

Despite their cautious tone during the segment with CNBC anchor Erin Burnett, none of the women anticipated a double dip in the economy. But they see a need for a confidence booster.

"This is an important quarter," said Carla Harris, a managing director at Morgan Stanley Investment Management. "If we see company performance start to outperform the [Wall] Street expectations, that's going to help a lot with respect to confidence, and part of what I think is dragging down the recovery is the lack of confidence."

After providing an overview of their business lines, the women — who along with the rest of US Banker's Most Powerful Women in Banking will be honored at a dinner Wednesday evening in New York — discussed the need for more women to land, thrive and grow in jobs with revenue-generating responsibility.

"I think the key is putting women in P&L roles earlier in their careers," said Michelle Van Dyke, a regional president at Fifth Third Bancorp.

Women make up less than 17% of the executive ranks in the banking industry, Rehm noted. She said the women being honored by US Banker have written an open letter to chief executives in the industry, asking them to do more to get women in the pipeline.

For women to truly advance in the industry, they "need to get there early," Rehm said, "and you need to be mentored, and brought along.”

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