This time last year, there were three women serving as heads of supervision within the Federal Reserve System. Now, unlike any point in Fed history, there are five—representing nearly half of the 12 district banks.

It’s unprecedented certainly, but the women in charge of supervising the country's largest banks will tell you there's nothing surprising about the positions they hold. In fact, they all, separately, make the case that it's to be expected.

Groomed at an agency that favors data over politics, collaboration over competition, and talent above all else, these women have excelled in their careers by building on the right opportunities and establishing their credibility from day one.

"It's an organization that is truly a meritocracy," says Teresa Curran, who began her career at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco in 1995 and was made head of supervision there in May. "It just feels that way every day of the week we're here, and women have had every opportunity to advance. The Fed's mission is so critical; it cannot afford not to tap its talent."

Curran's counterparts around the system include Sarah Dahlgren, head of supervision at the New York Fed, Cathy Lemieux at the Chicago Fed, Julie Stackhouse of the St. Louis Fed, Jennifer Burns of the Richmond Fed and Maryann Hunter, deputy director of the division of bank supervision and regulation at the Federal Reserve Board in Washington.

Together, they portray an agency that is serious and academic in nature, where individuals are recognized for their analytics, smarts and good policy thinking. They describe an agency where barriers—or advantages, for that matter—don't exist because of gender.

There is something to be said, of course, about the connection between the strengths typically ascribed to women and the work involved in a role like supervision. (Think intuition, communication skills, analytical skills and the ability to multitask competing priorities.)

But retiring Kansas City Fed President Tom Hoenig, who has made talent development part of his legacy (several women interviewed for this article trace their path of advancement back to him and the start they had as bank examiners in Kansas City), says that gender is incidental when recognizing potential in people. "It's not just women talent," Hoenig says. "It's talent that we place throughout the district. In this bank, the most important thing we do to achieve our goals is to develop our talent. Any business worth its salt does that."

Mentoring people at the start of their careers in an environment like Kansas City, "Tom has a strong expectation that his staff is going to learn and grow," says the Fed Board’s Hunter, who counts Hoenig among her own mentors. "He was always very clear that you should identify your goal and then work to achieve it," she explains. "You had to be willing to take responsibility for your own development, take feedback in the right spirit, and work on building your skills. That was the key to moving up. I never felt any limitations on the opportunities available—and I still don’t."

In general, these women, perhaps rightly, shy away from the topic of gender when talking about their success, placing much more emphasis on the work they do as the most relevant aspect of their advancement. "What women never want is for people to think you deserve something because you're a woman, or that you've been disadvantaged because you’re a woman," says Esther George, first vice president and chief operating officer at the Kansas City Fed, and another pupil of Hoenig's. "I think what you and I want is to be recognized for what we are able to do. When we are able to work in an environment where we can show our skills and someone recognizes that, then everybody is better off. I think women that have reached leadership potential will tell you that they have been fortunate in that sense because they were able to show their talent, someone recognized it, and they’re in those roles today."

This goes against the thinking being shared in women's groups and leadership development courses in the private sector, where employees—women in particular—generally are instructed not to assume that they will be noticed for a job well done, and to find ways to trumpet their successes to supervisors. But the Fed's structure, with its 12 district banks and a separate Board of Governors, sets a different tone for the culture at the agency, says Stackhouse of the St. Louis Fed, a veteran of the system who also has worked at the Minneapolis and Kansas City district banks.

"When you are in a very large organization to be able to distinguish yourself is very hard. We're actually in 12 separate, smaller organizations," Stackhouse says. "You still have to distinguish yourself, but it's not as if you are doing so under one giant corporate umbrella. I think that's advantageous to anyone."

In some ways, the apolitical nature of the Fed has allowed women to stick strictly to business, and to forgo some of the traditional advancement rituals that occur outside the office in the private sector. "I believe when women focus on the work and not the legacy, not on who's playing on the golf course and all of those things that sometimes comes with the private sector … then we stand out as much as anybody else does. In some cases we stand out more," says Deborah Bailey, a former deputy director of the banking supervision and regulation division at the Fed. Now a director in Deloitte & Touche LLP's governance, regulatory and risk strategies practice, Bailey says she "found no politics at the Federal Reserve" during her time there. "What you can contribute to the discussion, to the issue, to the policy, to the regulation, or to monetary policy issues is what's valued there, not so much necessarily who you are to [have gotten] there."

Underscoring that is the focus on data and research that is at the heart of the central bank. "Good ideas and rigorous analysis are more important than political alliances," says the Chicago Fed's Lemieux. "People are valued for what they can contribute and so that allows more diversity in terms of people in leadership positions."

It also doesn't hurt your chances of advancement if you're willing to take a risk, or even make some mistakes along the way. "We value people who are willing to speak up, people who are willing to take up challenges," says Dahlgren, head of bank supervision in New York. Before getting appointed to the role in June 2010, she led the New York Fed’s Special Investments Management Group, which oversaw the special lending facilities related to American International Group and Bear Stearns.

Risk-taking certainly seems to have worked out well for Burns at the Richmond Fed, who became a senior vice president in 2010. "Part of my ability to advance was a willingness to try something different, make lateral moves and step out of the normal career path for examiners," Burns says. "I took advantage of changes in our portfolio of supervised institutions, and was willing to try different assignments where the supervisory program was not well developed. It was more of a 'learn as you go' process. I found the challenge rewarding and interesting. So taking advantage of opportunities and doing a good job with them is important."

The rise of Burns, Dahlgren and other women from around the Fed system helps to reinforce the idea to other women that building a career in supervision—or elsewhere in the system—is encouraged. "There are signals throughout our organization that talented women have every opportunity," says Curran, who worked with Janet Yellen, vice chair of the Board of Governors, when Yellen was president and CEO at the San Francisco Fed.

Curran and Dahlgren are the two women most recently appointed to head-of-supervision roles at Fed banks. Both replaced men. "When you take a step back and count it up, we're very different today then we were 10 years ago in terms of female representation of heads of supervision," says Dahlgren. "But if you look at the path, it's not surprising to me. This is a natural evolution."

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