The setting was festive. The jewelry sparkled. But the mood among bankers gathered in New York on Thursday evening was decidedly much more subdued, even humbler, than it has been in recent years past.

Persistent unemployment in the United States and the low levels of household income "help explain the protests against Wall Street … this is a level of pain you can't and shouldn't ignore," said JPMorgan Chase & Co. executive Heidi Miller, who has been one of the banking industry's most tireless and passionate advocates.

Miller, who plans to step down early next year from JPMorgan Chase, accepted a lifetime achievement award from American Banker magazine on Thursday night. She spoke at a gala in New York City to honor the magazine's 9th annual list of The 25 Most Powerful Women in Banking.

Two years ago, during the worst of the financial crisis, Miller defiantly defended her industry, proclaiming herself "as proud as ever of being a banker." But on Thursday she was more willing to admit what many perceive as the industry's failings.

"I think we have responsibilities as corporate citizens … We have to acknowledge [that] what happens around us, that will create change," Miller told American Banker in an interview after the event.

The annual celebration was attended by banking executives, both male and female, who usually see it as a rare opportunity to publicly celebrate their work in a profession that still faces widespread criticism after the financial crisis.

The event took place at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, far uptown from the "Occupy Wall Street" protesters who have spent weeks railing against the banking industry and what they call its undue influence on the economy and the government. But those protesters' influence was felt throughout the event.

"There's no one 'Occupy Wall Street,' there are multiple people out there … and they're all expressing dissatisfaction," Miller told American Banker. The protesters' dissatisfaction is "not just with Wall Street, [it's] with Washington, and everything … and so I look at them and I see a reflection of what's happening in this country, and that's not good."

The annual awards celebrate women bankers, who are still a relative minority in the industry. KeyCorp chief executive Beth Mooney, the first woman to run a top 20 bank based in the United States, joked that "I think I have a little glass in my hair" as she accepted an award on Thursday evening.

Mooney, who took over Key earlier this year, spoke frankly about the challenges facing women who aspire to the top positions in the still-conservative banking industry.

She and Karen Peetz, who was named the most powerful woman in banking, also both acknowledged that not everyone has access to the same opportunities.

“For all the things that each of us has done right, every person in this room has been the beneficiary of good timing, lucky breaks, and advantages that too many others lack,” Peetz, a vice chairman of Bank of New York Mellon Corp., said as she accepted her award.

Keynote speaker Arianna Huffington, a sometimes vocal critic of how big banks treat customers, was relatively gentle on the industry Thursday night. The Huffington Post founder told the audience that she was grateful to a bank for agreeing to give her an overdraft loan early in her career.

In an interview Friday, Huffington praised Miller’s speech and said, “You heard a lot of the same concerns that you heard around the country … it was very encouraging that these issues were raised by bankers.”

But ultimately, the single most defiant display at the event was the simple appearance of Sallie Krawcheck, who was publicly fired from Bank of America Corp. last month. Krawcheck, who ran one of the more successful businesses at Bank of America and is widely respected in the industry, was loudly applauded when she accepted her award for being one of the most powerful women in banking.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.