Mentorship was vital to career survival for many of the women who have attained senior jobs in banking. Now, in a difficult business climate, these women have been vital to the survival of mentorship.

Without them, the formal networks and informal conversations that have guided so many careers might have been crowded out by the time demands and stress of working in an industry under siege.

Instead, mentorship appears to be thriving, even as the havoc wreaked by the financial crisis generates a surge in demand for support and guidance that in theory should have overwhelmed the available supply.

Credit women like former Citigroup Inc. executive Marjorie Magner, who now focuses on private equity at Brysam Global Partners but continues to mentor women in the banking industry.

Credit women like Karen Peetz, founder of the Women's Initiatives Network at the Bank of New York Mellon Corp. When she was promoted last year to head of financial markets and treasury services, she considered giving up oversight of the mentoring group. But she decided it was important to remain the face of the group, which has 18 chapters worldwide, including several that were added in the past year.

Credit the senior executives who eagerly participated this summer in the eighth annual Black Women on Wall Street conference, where accomplished women were invited to share advice with students and young finance professionals.

"We thought we would have a very small representation of our senior women, and instead we had 50 show up, which just totally floored us," says Westina Matthews Shatteen, founder of the event and the recently retired managing director for community business development at Merrill Lynch & Co. "I think they came...because it made them feel like they could say, 'We're not discouraged, and we don't want you to be, either.'"

But there is no denying that the ranks of senior women at banks have been thinned by the upheaval in the industry. And though women who have departed the business may have more time now to devote to informal mentorship, they are no longer available as sponsors, the advocates within an organization who can promote the advancement of others - the people who can "carry your paper," as the expression goes.

"With all the changes going on in corporations now," Matthews Shatteen says, "it's uncertain who's carrying your paper, or whether they're carrying your paper with them out the door as they go."

That uncertainty makes informal mentoring all the more desirable, and it has altered the nature of the conversations that people are having with their mentors.

"People are very much interested now in 'what do I do,' not the broader issues of 'how do I develop' or 'how do I get better,'" says Magner, who headed Citi's global consumer group until 2005. "Their questions are much more transactional now than strategic."

Magner says she easily could have pictured more formalized mentoring efforts falling by the wayside as the industry copes with crisis.

"There's never a time when mentoring isn't valuable, but there can be times when there are so many pressures that management feels the organization just can't be focused on some activities, and mentoring may or may not be one of the things they decide is not critical in the current environment," she says.

But many banks are continuing to promote mentorship, in both formal and informal settings, as a way of confronting head-on the anxieties that employees are grappling with as a result of the industry's difficulties.

Citi, in the midst of unprecedented scrutiny from regulators, customers and investors, still managed to set aside a day in September for the company's most senior women to assess their mentoring initiatives and lay out a three-year strategic plan for the programs.

U.S. Bancorp CEO Richard Davis says a "somewhat accidental action" (U.S. Bancorp execs being named to the 25MPWIB list) prompted his company to start taking the advancement of women more seriously a couple years ago. "We've now used those last couple of years to greatly embolden a more formal approach to creating opportunity and upward mobility and visibility for the emerging women in our company," Davis says.

In fact, the 40 top women at the Minneapolis-based company now mentor other women there, one-on-one and in groups.

At Fifth Third Bancorp, senior executives still fully back the mission of the company's "business resource groups," networks targeting several hundred employees identified by management as high performers. The company has networks for women, as well as African-Americans, and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employees.

"These are low-cost efforts that matter very, very much to employees," says Nancy Phillips, executive vice president for human resources at Cincinnati-based Fifth Third. And as retention tools, they have proven effective.

"It's hard to leave a place when your mentor is there," noted Phillips, herself the beneficiary of a mentor from the start of her career at General Electric, where she spent a dozen years before joining Fifth Third in mid-2008. "We're definitely relying on that."

Barbara Goodstein, an executive vice president at AXA Equitable, had a similar goal for a daylong seminar scheduled for Sept. 11.

The First Annual "AXA Equitable's Community of Women - Finding Your Passion and Living Your Purpose" was expected to draw 450 female employees in New York as well as hundreds more in AXA offices around the world to hear keynote speaker Dina Dublon, the former chief financial officer at JPMorgan Chase & Co., and several panel discussions packed with high-powered executives willing to share the lessons they have learned.

"Particularly in these uncertain times," Goodstein says, "there is real value in creating a community within your employee base."

The women who attend the event "are going to feel more connected to each other and to this company than they ever had."

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.