In shadow of #MeToo, women execs call for greater leadership diversity

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For the past 16 years, bank executives in evening gowns and tuxedos have gathered at American Banker’s annual gala in New York to honor the accomplishments of women in the industry.

In many ways, this year’s gala, held Thursday evening at Cipriani Wall Street, was no different. Attendees sipped wine and dined on filet mignon as they lauded the industry’s top female executives.

As the honorees took the stage, though, it quickly became clear that, in the year since the last celebration for the Most Powerful Women in Banking, the world has changed. Against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement, as women across the country share stories about sexual harassment in the workplace, a hallmark of the annual gathering — calls for more diversity in banking’s senior ranks — seemed more consequential.

“I’m often asked, do we really think that in this day and age it’s important to honor powerful women in banking?” said Cathy Bessant, chief operations and technology officer at Bank of America, as she accepted her second consecutive award for topping the banking list. “And I don’t think there’s anything more we need to look at than the events of the last 12 months, and the way the dialogue has changed, to know that it could not be more appropriate.”

Accepting a lifetime achievement award, Barbara Byrne, who recently retired as vice chairman at Barclays, urged female bankers to speak up and to act.

“In this moment of heightened awareness in our culture, I believe it’s essential to seize the opportunity to transform anger and frustration into momentum to change,” Byrne said. “At this type of moment, our voices can be amplified.”

Byrne added: “We can be heard in the C-suite, we can be heard by the board, to say we need change, we need it now. We need proper evaluations. We need to be able to promote and push forward not just women, but all people of diverse backgrounds, colors, religious backgrounds. We need to be a power of we.”

The annual dinner took place as women across corporate America have lost ground in the C-suite.

In recent months, several female CEOs of big U.S. companies — including Pepsi, Campbell Soup and Mattel — have stepped down. The banking industry, meanwhile, only has two female CEOs — KeyCorp’s Beth Mooney and CIT’s Ellen Alemany — at U.S.-based systemically important financial institutions.

At the event Thursday, Wells Fargo’s Mary Mack, who was honored as the industry’s top woman to watch, encouraged women to support each other.

“Just remember, real women don’t just watch,” Mack said. “We lean in. We help each other. We support other women, and we get it done.”

See the most recent rankings:
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Mack, head of consumer banking, also urged the audience to keep their eyes on Wells as the San Francisco company works to restore its once-marquee reputation, which was first damaged by its phony-accounts scandal two years ago.

“While the past couple of years have been difficult for us … we’ve got this,” Mack said.

Amid all of the calls for change and for greater diversity, honorees also reminded the audience how far the industry has come over the past few decades in promoting more women.

Rosemary Berkery, who retired in May from UBS, said when she entered the industry in 1978, there were few female leaders to emulate.

“After all, at that point it’d been only four years since single American women could apply for a credit card,” said Berkery, as she accepted a lifetime achievement award.

Berkery added that she applied for a card as soon as she was able to do so. “I assure you, we made up for lost time,” she said, as the audience laughed.

The gala featured several other lighthearted moments.

Shortly after Bessant took the stage for the final speech of the evening, she acknowledged that it was difficult to follow the “wonderful words” of the prior speakers.

She then broke out in song, singing the first few lines of the 1966 hit “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” by the Temptations. “I know you want to leave me, but I refuse to let you go.”

Bessant went on to tell the story of giving the keynote speech at her son’s high school graduation — an experience she described as “joyful and treacherous and terrifying.”

Bessant closed out her speech by offering advice to the audience, using quotes that the students had shared in her son’s yearbook, including from Angela Davis, Martin Luther King Jr. and Stevie Nicks, among others.

" 'Don’t be a lady. Be a legend,' " Bessant said, quoting Nicks. "I happen to believe that we can be both, but our time to turn power into legend is right now."

Bessant also shared the quote her son submitted for the yearbook, from the pop star Ke$ha. “’The party don’t start till I walk in,’” Bessant said, quoting the song “Tik Tok,” as the crowd laughed. "I can only tell you I wish I was kidding."

She finished with a different quote, one that summed up the evening's theme very well.

" 'Here’s to strong women. May we know them. May we be them. And may we raise them,' " Bessant said.

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Diversity and equality C-suite Workplace culture Cathy Bessant Mary Mack Rosemary Berkery Barbara Byrne Wells Fargo Bank of America Women in Banking