When Mariel Donath first pursued a career in economics, it was more typical for a woman to study home economics.

She found a job in the federal government, one of the few places female economists were welcome.

That was 35 years ago. Now, Ms. Donath has become a leader in an industry still dominated by men.

Ms. Donath, 56, last month became president and chief executive of the Community Bankers Association of New York State. She succeeded Robert O. Lehrman, who held those posts for 13 years.

Ms. Donath said she's proud to be one of the few women to lead a banking trade association. The group represents 106 institutions, mostly thrifts, with more than $150 billion of assets.

"I do think it's a tribute to the leadership of our trade association," Ms. Donath said. "I think it demonstrates that the major issues affecting this industry are gender neutral."

Ms. Donath, until recently the association's director of federal relations and chief financial officer, is hardly a newcomer to issues facing the industry. For the past 17 years, she's been lobbying for thrifts in Albany and Washington on everything from the Bank Insurance Fund/Savings Association Insurance Fund issue and insurance powers of banks to the taxation of credit unions.

"In this town, we use the word 'player,'" said Paul Schosberg, president of America's Community Bankers, a thrift trade group based in Washington. "I think anybody who's known and observed her knows that both at the state and national level, she's definitely a player."

She sees the battle against credit unions as one of the banking industry's most important efforts. But as soon as they become banks, they are very welcome to join her group, she said.

Ms. Donath, who entered the lobbying field through the League of Women Voters, said banking issues at the state and federal levels are mirroring each other for the first time.

She said she remains optimistic about community banking.

"I think this industry will continue to flourish despite increased consolidation," she said. "I think community banks are going to be around and are going to continue to be an important part of the financial services industry."

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