Businesses owned by women are finally getting the respect they deserve from banks, according to market research.

A biannual survey by the National Foundation for Women Business Owners found that 52% of such businesses got bank loans last year, up from 46% in 1996.

Fifty-nine percent of businesses owned by men reported getting bank loans in 1998, up from 49% in 1996.

"Women are no longer feeling that they're one down," said Sharon G. Hadary, executive director of the Silver Spring, Md., research and advocacy group. "That, to me, is very, very encouraging."

Bankers may have simply come to realize the market's potential, Ms. Hadary said. Women own one-quarter to one-third of all businesses worldwide, she said at a small-business banking conference here sponsored by the Consumer Bankers Association.

Banks are marketing more effectively to women business owners, who typically want more information about bank products than men do, the survey found. Women also take longer to decide whether to borrow from a bank, and they do so only if colleagues say they have had good experiences at the bank, the research shows.

"I'm not suggesting different products, but the way you deliver them is important," Ms. Hadary said.

Several banks represented at the conference, including a BankAmerica Corp. unit, NationsBank Mid-West of Kansas City, Mo., and Union Bank of California in San Diego, have started lending programs tailored to women who own businesses.

BankBoston Corp. is trying to market itself better to women entrepreneurs who call it about loans.

Under a program it started six months ago, callers talk to a telephone banker who has been specially trained in women business owners' preferences. Then the caller is referred to one of five full-time salespeople who specialize in serving woman-owned small businesses.

The program has generated $53 million of loans for BankBoston, said vice president Renee Simms, head of the women entrepreneurs initiative. BankBoston hopes the effort will have brought in $100 million of loans by yearend.

The banking company said it wants to increase the share of loans in its small-business portfolio made to women. When the program began, women-owned companies were 11% to 14% of BankBoston's small-business cli-ents. By contrast, 35% of small businesses in New England are owned by women, Ms. Simms said.

Other banks are focusing on referrals as a way to pick up more woman business clients.

BankAtlantic Bancorp of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is networking in women business owners' professional groups.

"Women-owned businesses are somewhat neglected in our market, and it's a big niche," said Stacy Pedersen, senior vice president of the $3.5 billion- asset thrift company.

Union Bank of California said it hopes to attract women entrepreneurs through a link to women.com, an Internet site for professional women. "Establishing Web links with other high-profile organizations is critical," said George A. Ramirez, senior vice president of the bank, which is majority-owned by Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi Ltd.

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