Call it the "glass ceiling" or the "boys' club" or some other euphemism, but there is no denying that women in corporate America are not proportionately represented in either the C-suite or the boardroom.
In the financial services industry, women make up 55.6 percent of the labor force, but only 16.8 percent of executive officers, according to the New York nonprofit group Catalyst. In the boardroom, that percentage drops to 16.4 percent, and at the chief executive level it falls to 2.5 percent.
The good news is that in corporate America in general and in the financial services industry in particular, the role played by women at the highest levels of corporations continues to expand.
Among Fortune 500 companies, the percentage of female board members has increased to 15.2 percent in 2009 from 9.6 percent in 1995, and those familiar with the role of women on corporate boards say that there are several factors likely to continue driving those percentages up.
"Global competition has meant you can't just have a bunch of white guys sitting around a room who look the same, talk the same and come from the same world," says Susan Stautberg, the president of Partnercom, which creates and manages advisory boards for banks.
Stautberg, who is also chairman and co-founder of Women Corporate Directors, an international association of women on corporate boards, says that the U.S. lags behind some countries. In Norway, for instance, corporations are required to have a board made up of a minimum of 40 percent women.
However, she says, there has been significant progress in just the past decade.
"It has changed dramatically," she says. "Boards now are looking at diversity in a number of ways—gender, regional generational, ethnic. In addition, there are more seats open because sitting CEOs are now often asked by their own boards not to serve on more than one outside board."
Catherine A. Allen is the chairman and CEO of the Santa Fe Group, which provides strategic consulting services to the financial services industry. She says that within banking, it is the country's largest and most powerful financial institutions that are leading the pack in terms of the number of women on their boards.
"The larger corporations are much more attuned to and aware of the need to have diversity on their boards, and the regulators encourage diversity," she says. "You don't have that level of focus at the community bank level. I know a number of women who have been trying to get on community bank boards and have not been able to."
The number of women serving on the boards of even some of the country's largest banks can vary significantly. Consider Fifth Third and KeyCorp, two Midwest institutions of comparable size.
Cincinnati's Fifth Third, with $110 billion of assets, has two women on a board of 13 people, while the $90 billion-asset KeyCorp in Cleveland has six women on a board of 17.
Stautberg says smaller banks face particular challenges finding female board members because they simply aren't looking in the right places.
"My own knowledge of getting on to corporate boards is that you learn from being on smaller boards or nonprofits, and you have to make it on to one corporate before others look at you," she says.
Frequently, where a large institution might use a search firm to seek out qualified candidates, she says, a community bank will pick from individuals already known to current board members-a process unlikely to contribute to diversity.
Still, some community bankers say they believe progress is being made.
Donna Petrocco, the president and CEO of the $228 million-asset Valley Bank and Trust in Brighton, Colo., says that she has seen more women on community bank boards in recent years, and suggests there is more behind the trend than a search for gender equality.
"Women on bank boards are more essential then ever," says Petrocco. "They are more detail oriented than men. And regulations have changed so much, and policies have become more and more complicated, that when it comes to regulatory burden, women pay attention to details."
She cited an example from her own bank, which brought on a new female board member several years ago.
"She had added so much to the board because she pays attention to detail, asks good questions, and she reads the board reports," says Petrocco. "You get this directors' report that is an inch and a half thick and some directors who have been on boards a long time tend to skim through. She reads it all."
Santa Fe Group's Allen says that the key to keeping the momentum going is for women who serve on corporate boards to mentor other women. She also suggests that companies provide educational opportunities "so that women in these smaller communities can begin to understand how to get on these boards, and what eligibility requirements and qualifications there are."
Banks in particular, says Stautberg, have taken to using advisory boards as proving grounds for women being considered for future corporate board membership.
"Banks set up advisory boards before going into new regions or new lines of business," she says. "We see that banks often put women on advisory boards first to see if they are comfortable with them—which is something they have been doing with men for a long time."