Heidi Miller on Women, Banking and the Meritocracy Myth

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I've long supported the mission of the 25 Most Powerful Women in Banking initiative at American Banker, and I'm honored to have been selected to the list on numerous occasions. But truth be told, I'm really not much of a one for rankings.

How does one actually parse the degrees of influence commanded by women in an industry like financial services, which includes so many different kinds of companies and covers such a sprawling landscape of business lines? Though I'm sure the compilers of this ranking have their methodologies, the answer is, it doesn't really matter.

The value of an initiative like this one is that it creates visibility around an issue that still, after all these years, needs every bit of attention it can get.

It's baffling, isn't it? We put so much effort into filling the pipeline with female talent, devote so much lip service to diversity goals, and yet we are confronted with a deficit of women leaders at the largest financial services firms. Why are so few women making it to this level? And why is it that the few to have done so are the ones who seem to have targets on their backs every time the big firms realign senior management?

The lack of diversity at the top of the house remains a blind spot. We accept it because we know we have moved on from an era of blatant discrimination, because we believe that people are now hired and promoted based solely on merit. But the persistent gender disparity at the most senior levels argues strongly against the idea that we've achieved anything close to a true meritocracy.

At many banks, women have formal mentoring programs and leadership development networks, but they often don't have the informal networks of relationships that convey power and lead to promotions. Bridging this gap isn't easy. In the battle of having to run a business, all the sensitivity training in the world can't stop us from giving into the deeply ingrained biases that affect us, both women and men, in how we view others. We can force hiring managers to examine a certain number of resumes from diversity candidates, but we can't force them to reach a certain comfort level with them-and comfort counts for a lot when we hire, promote and build relationships with people.

Look at the senior leaders in your own organization. You will see people who have done good work. But it's likely that many of them look similar to one another. It's also likely that there are other people-perhaps of a different gender, race or sexual orientation, of a different ethnicity or religious persuasion, or maybe just someone with a different approach to the world-who could have been just as successful in these roles.

Most people I know see beyond the old norms and stereotypes that used to hold women back. Some even acknowledge that they hold unconscious biases that skew their perceptions and their interactions in the business world.

With that kind of progress, it's easy to delude oneself into thinking that the makeup of senior management teams simply reflects merit.

We need to rewire our thinking here and reject this excuse for the status quo.

That's why a ranking like this one is so important, because it regularly serves as a display of the tremendous accomplishments owned by women across the industry, and reminds boards and CEOs of all the female talent available to them.

When I started in banking in 1979, there were not many female role models. Women starting in their careers today only have to look at this ranking for 75 names of people to look up to-and certainly there are many more women than that who can show them the ropes.

But in the top tier of the organizational charts at the top-tier banks, we simply haven't made the kind of progress in the last 10 years that I was expecting.

We cannot be complacent.

Heidi Miller retired this year as president of international at JPMorgan Chase. She was featured in American Banker's Most Powerful Women ranking from 2003-2010 and was No. 1 on the banking list from 2007-2009, when she ran JPMorgan's treasury and securities services unit.

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Women in Banking