With the exit of chief executives like Ellen Costello, Ellen Alemany and, soon, Irene Dorner, the ranks of women at the top of major banks are thinning out. Beth Mooney helps keep hope alive, but the expectation generally had been that she'd be getting more company. Now she seems to be getting lonelier instead.

So, in putting together this edition of the most powerful women in banking and finance, we decided to pose a few questions about gender to our honorees. One of those questions became a theme for this issue: "Does gender matter in banking?" We heard a lot of strong opinions on the topic, both "yes" and "no." But mostly "yes."

"I'm one that believes it absolutely does matter," Barbara Yastine, the chairman, president and CEO of Ally Bank, tells us in one of several videos. "If the industry were gender-blind, you would have a lot more major banks headed by women."

She says it is up to women to change the statistics. How? Mainly by hanging in there. A lot of women leave the industry long before retirement age, whether to start a business, spend more time with their families or simply out of frustration. "We need more women to just put their heads down, put their elbows out and keep at it," says Yastine, who is No. 9 on the banking list.

LeeAnne Linderman, executive vice president for retail banking at Zions First National Bank, says gender matters in every industry because women make up more than half of the general population.

"We have the right to be at the table. Whether it's government, the public sector, the private sector, charitable organizations, we should be representing the 51% of the world that we are," Linderman, No. 14 on the banking list, says in her video.

Over the years, women have come to comprise nearly half of Zions' executive management team, she adds. "I've seen that transition and what has happened to the conversation around the executive table. It's more inclusive. It's more thought-provoking," she says.

Cathy Bessant, Bank of America's global technology and operations executive, says men and women approach life differently. "Neither is right or wrong. They're just very different," she says, in another video.

Women generally wouldn't take satisfaction in having a tombstone that says, "great banker," says Bessant, No. 7 on the banking list. "They want a legacy that isn't just a legacy of career success, but a legacy of personal satisfaction, a legacy of happiness for generations to come."

Certainly the women in our opening feature, "A Sense of Purpose," all fit that bill. Each one has a story about how she is using her influence to make a difference at work and beyond, from the charity Linderman is starting to the college scholarship Bessant created.

You'll read about Julie Goodridge, who left Wall Street investment banks behind to start the socially responsible investment company NorthStar Asset Management. Goodridge, No. 25 on our finance list, helped effect major social change a decade ago by suing Massachusetts for the right to marry another woman, in a case that led to gay marriage becoming legal in the United States for the first time.

You'll also read about Sandy Pierce, a lifelong Detroit resident who chairs the authority overseeing the city's recovery plan. Pierce, CEO of FirstMerit's Michigan operations and No. 25 on our banking list, is among those who say gender is a nonissue, at least in her experience. "For me – 35 years in banking – it did not matter," she says.

Of course, many men are very active in their communities too, and Linderman suggests this is a trait common among bankers in particular. She says the reason why she acted in such an outsized way, after hearing about a need in her community for a shelter that would serve homeless women veterans with children, is because "that's what bankers do."

We explored the gender question through another lens with our feature on Janet Yellen, which looks at whether having a woman as Fed chair for the first time makes any difference at all. And in our annual survey of the honorees in the rankings, we asked if they do their jobs differently because they are women, and if so, how. You'll find some of the answers in this issue.

But we'd also like to know what you think. Go to americanbanker.com/gender to see the videos, find out how some of our other honorees feel and leave a comment. I look forward to hearing what you have to say.

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