“Yeah,” several women bankers in the room said in unison.
That audible chorus made it clear Barclays’ Barbara Byrne was on to something.
“Some women are harder on other women,” Byrne, the vice chairman of investment banking at Barclays, said ahead of her retirement next week.
It’s a “dirty little secret in banking,” she said, triggering the “yeah” response. “It’s as if they think there’s one seat and they need to compete for it.”
That conversation, and her call on women to lift up each other to the heights of the executive ranks, were part of an annual conference on women in leadership sponsored by American Banker.
Throughout the event, senior executives from a number of big banks — including MUFG Union Bank, Goldman Sachs and Bank of America — offered lessons they have learned along the way on their career paths. Additionally, experts in fields such as philosophy and psychology offered advice on topics ranging from decision-making to combating sexism in the workplace.
Granted, acknowledgments of progress in recent decades were made. The industry is still male dominated, but women now fight different battles. There are more women in the industry, and particularly in its senior ranks. Most banks tout their commitments to gender diversity, and you would be hard-pressed to find a big bank without a women’s mentorship program.
But what has not followed in step, according to Byrne and others, is the shared commitment among women bankers to support each other’s accomplishments — and to ensure that high-performing women are also put in revenue-producing roles, so that they are on a track to become CEOs.
Rather supporting each other’s accomplishments, women in banking and finance often undercut each other in the interest of competition, Byrne said.
“If you have a woman who is on the front lines, and she’s tough, and she can deliver huge revenues, watch it be the other women who call her out for being difficult,” Byrne said. She noted that that men with similar dispositions in the same jobs are praised for their “commanding presence.”
Erin Thomas, a partner at Paradigm, a diversity and inclusion firm, advised women to “amplify” the successes of their colleagues — for instance, by pointing out when a woman makes an interesting point during a meeting. To drive home her point, Thomas asked the audience members to take out their smartphones and discuss her presentation on social media.
“Did you tweet my picture? I’m serious,” Thomas said lightheartedly while posing for the audience.
In offering advice to their colleagues, bankers said that big career opportunities often arise fast and in unexpected ways.
For instance, after working for years in the merchant banking division at Goldman Sachs, Elizabeth Overbay — currently chief operating officer in Goldman’s consumer and commercial banking division — said she was offered her current role during what she thought was going to be a quick chat with her boss a few years ago.
Switching jobs was not part of “choreographed plan,” Overbay said. She had not previously considered helping Goldman launch Marcus, its online consumer banking platform. But the unexpected job offer taught her to quickly seize opportunities when they arise.
“If you’re like me, you’ll work hard every day, and hopefully you’ll enjoy it,” Overbay said. “Then, one day, someone is going to call you and casually say, ‘Hey, could you pop in for a sec?’ And you’ll wander into the office, and you’ll be given the chance to do something completely unexpected.”
Similarly, Andrea Smith, chief administrative officer at Bank of America, described the experience of taking on an expanded role, which currently includes managing the company’s stress test, after running human resources during the crisis.
B of A had previously struggled with its annual stress-test submission to the Federal Reserve. The central bank in 2015 required the Charlotte, N.C., company to resubmit its capital plan. But since Smith took over, in time for the 2016 submission, the company has received passing grades.
Looking back, Smith said she welcomed the opportunity to learn something new, even if it was scary. “I took the leap,” she said.
Earlier in the day, MUFG executive Ranjana Clark opened the conference by looking back on the key decisions she has made in her life — including leaving her home in India, becoming a mother and, eventually, running and managing her own business.
Clark currently holds several titles at MUFG, including chief transformation officer, head of transaction banking in the Americas and San Francisco Bay Area president.
“I think the defining moments really offer us an opportunity to step back and say: Where do I want to take my life? Where do I want to take my career?” Clark said.