Bankers in tuxedos and sparkling gowns on Thursday evening sipped cocktails and mingled in a ballroom on Wall Street, a setting that, for a financial services gala, felt almost cinematically scripted.

But when honorees at American Banker’s Most Powerful Women dinner took the stage at Cipriani — an event space once home to the New York Stock Exchange — the prim party turned into a passionate celebration of gender diversity in the industry.

Bank of America’s Cathy Bessant, this year’s top woman in banking, urged attendees to embrace the label “woman banker” and proudly advocate for female colleagues.

Cathy Bessant of Bank of America
“I loved every minute of it – I loved the deals; I loved the winning; I loved the competition; I loved building market share,” said Cathy Bessant, chief operations and technology officer for Bank of America.

Bessant also recounted the story of why she became a banker in the first place more than three decades ago. She had her sights set on law school after college, and didn’t intend to stay in the industry for long. Like other women in the audience, though, she found a calling in the hard-charging, high-powered work.

“I loved every minute of it — I loved the deals; I loved the winning; I loved the competition; I loved building market share,” said Bessant, B of A's head of operations and technology, who joined the Charlotte, N.C., company in 1982. “But the real reason I loved banking is the nobility of what we do.”

Bankers have the “ability to change the world” by putting families in homes and helping businesses grow, she said.

'I go to work to change the world': BofA's Bessant
Cathy Bessant of Bank of America talks about the "nobility" of banking and how it helps change people's lives for the better.

The annual awards dinner honored 25 women in banking, 25 women to watch and 25 women in finance for their achievements over the past year. In many ways, the setting for the event in New York’s financial district was fitting, as it was just down the road from the famous Fearless Girl statue.

The bronze statue, unveiled in March, features a young girl in a dress and a ponytail, staring defiantly at the masculine Wall Street bull. The piece was commissioned by State Street to showcase the Boston firm’s diversity efforts. Hannah Grove, the marketing executive who oversaw the project, was selected as one of this year’s top women in banking.

Empowering young women was a big focus of the night. Cate Luzio, global head of international subsidiary banking at HSBC, hosted 10 high-school mentees from Girls Inc., along with their HSBC mentors, at the event. It was part of a program she initiated, inspired in part by the Most Powerful Women awards dinner, to encourage young women to consider a career in banking.

In her speech, Bessant urged attendees to recruit bright women to the industry. She also called on them to promote more women, as gender parity in the C-suite remains persistently subpar.

“I have to admit, I’ve had those moments myself where I was reluctant to be the woman in the room pulling for other women,” Bessant said. “Those days have to be over.”

Throughout the evening, honorees shared lessons about what they’ve learned on their way to the C-suite.

Mary Callahan Erdoes, the chief executive of the asset management unit at JPMorgan Chase, spoke lightheartedly about the challenge of finding work-life balance.

It takes IQ, EQ and LQ to succeed in banking
Mary Callahan Erdoes of JPMorgan Chase outlines the secret to motivating employees that she learned from businessman Jack Ma.

She shared a story from the financial crisis, a time when she spent most of her weekends in her New York office. She often brought along her two children, Morgan and Mason, who were 2 and 5 years old at the time.

“I would stick them in my office and say, ‘Don’t talk, and don’t move. And here’s a whole lot of candy,' ” Erdoes said.

There was one day, however, when she came back from a meeting and found her office empty. So she looked down the hallway, where she saw her 2-year-old “with no bottoms on,” and her 5-year-old “doing handstands” in Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon’s office — and he was watching.

“At that moment, you just had to laugh,” Erodes said. “The more human you are, the more superhuman you are to the rest of people.”

TD Bank Group’s Linda Verba, who accepted a lifetime achievement award, also offered advice to attendees. Among the tips she shared was to remember the simple power of dressing well at work.

TD Bank's Verba on 'a great pair of shoes and a pop of lipstick'
Linda Verba, head of service strategy for TD Bank, discussed how the right look can build confidence and credibility.

“Never underestimate the power of a great pair of shoes and pop of lipstick,” said Verba, TD’s head of service strategy, describing the confidence it provides. “Dressing well, wearing a great pair of shoes and some makeup, does not make you any less a feminist.”

She added that "diversity is not a buzzword."

"Diversity is the fabric of our being," she said. "It is part of who we are."

Mary Navarro of Huntington Bancshares — who also accepted a lifetime achievement award — emphasized the importance of finding the right company. Navarro retired earlier this year, after 42 years in retail banking.

“Choose the company or bank you work for carefully,” Navarro said, praising her colleagues at the Columbus, Ohio-based Huntington.

As women walked on stage to speak throughout the evening, several joked that they didn’t choose the music that played in the background. The walk-up songs included hits such as Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” and Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Woman.”

Bessant, meanwhile, walked on stage to Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s 1973 classic rock song “Takin’ Care of Business” — a song she told the audience she personally requested.

Kristin Broughton

Kristin Broughton

Kristin Broughton is a reporter for American Banker, where she writes about the business of national and regional banking.