Women bankers should have enough confidence to take on added duties or create their own opportunities as they look to advance their careers.

Such ambition could include seeking leadership and networking openings outside their banks by joining boards of nonprofits or other firms, panelists told attendees at the American Bankers Association's annual women's leadership forum. The panel of female bankers said their forays into leadership began with volunteerism, eventually expanding into involvement with bank trade associations.

Volunteering is "part of what bankers do," Leslie Andersen, chief executive of Bank of Bennington in Nebraska, said. "That's who we are. ... It has been extremely rewarding to rub shoulders with lots of people who are way smarter than I am, and it's amazing what we can learn from each other."

Female executives need to be aware of potential opportunities and then be willing to seize them, panelists said. This could require a little bit of self-promotion, Laurie Stewart, president and chief executive of Sound Community Bank, a unit of Sound Financial Bancorp (SFBC) in Seattle, said.

(Andersen and Stewart have been recognized in past years as part of American Banker's 25 Women to Watch list.)

Stewart thought at the beginning of her career that colleagues would notice if she "worked harder or stayed later or did an extra project." She soon recognized that "this wasn't the Girl Scouts... giving me merit badges."

Instead, women bankers need to realize they are their own best champion.

"If you are thinking that soon they will notice and soon they will put a gold star on your paper then you will be soon watching the next person get the promotion," Stewart said.

Women need to make sure they aren't getting in their own way, Andersen said. She recalled how she agreed to chair the Nebraska Bankers Association three weeks before she found out she was pregnant with her third child. "It caught me a little bit by surprise," she said.

Andersen called an executive at the association to disclose the news and see if "the bankers are ready for that."

She even offered to step aside, but the executive told Andersen that, if "bankers weren't ready for that, then they should be."

The association's executive "was absolutely right," Andersen added. "I tend to put barriers in front of myself more than other people doing it to me."

When presented with an external barrier, female executives should be willing to challenge it, said LeeAnne Linderman, executive vice president at Zions Bank, a unit of Zions Bancorp. (ZION), in Salt Lake City.. When Linderman joined Zions in 1992, she immediately became involved with the Utah Bankers Association.

But her involvement was almost stifled because the trade group's bylaws stated that individuals had to be a president or chief executive of a bank to serve on the board. "That wasn't acceptable to me," Linderman said.

Linderman went to the leadership at her bank and expressed frustration over the limitation, and she was encouraged to push for change. Eventually the bylaws were rewritten and Linderman went go on to become the group's first female chairman.

(Linderman was listed as No. 19 on American Banker's Most Powerful Women in Banking list last year.)

"That would not have happened if I hadn't looked at the situation and decided we shouldn't accept the status quo if we believe the status quo is holding back the industry," Linderman said.

Despite the corporate-level strides women have made, their ranks still lag behind male counterparts, Patricia Sellers, senior editor at large at Fortune and the event's featured speaker, told attendees. Women only make up 17% of directors at Fortune 500 companies and just 23 of those companies are led by women.

This partly stems from how men and women view power, Sellers said. Women generally equate power with influence and "extending their power broadly," while the male definition of power involves "reaching a position" and is "often about control," she added.

There is less of an overt bias toward hiring and promoting women. Instead, the problem is rooted in cultural norms, Sellers said. To overcome this, women must continue to have discussions around the issue.

"The problem is cultural," Sellers said. "We are viewed with a narrower band of acceptable behavior than men."

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