Top Women in Banking Toast to Being a Force for Change

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It was a celebration more than anything else Thursday night, and pictures of Marianne Lake's new twins underscored that in a big way.

The chief financial officer of JPMorgan Chase & Co. had plenty to say on themes that were sure to resonate with the tuxedoed and gowned crowd at the Waldorf Astoria for American Banker's annual Most Powerful Women in Banking and Finance gala dinner.

Her call to action — which she directed at the women themselves — was one example. "Women must support women," Lake said, challenging executives to spend 30 minutes each week having coffee with a talented young woman.

But Lake — a rising star at JPMorgan with a reputation for toughness — also set the tone for an evening that would be much more fun than typical banker serious with a personal message.

She explained that she wasn't part of a video reel that played at the event — which showed a montage of the honorees going through a typical workday — for a very good reason.

"I've literally had my hands full," she said.

Then, warning the audience to prepare for "an overdose of super cuteness," she shared photos of her newborn twins with their 3-year-old brother, to a chorus of "awwwws."

It was perhaps the evening's most touching moment.

The mood remained light and celebratory, even through the many reminders about how far women still have to go to achieve gender parity in banking and finance.

Beth Mooney, the chief executive of KeyCorp, urged companies to put more focus on showing tangible results. "We are stewards … for the next generation," said Mooney, who accepted the evening's top award as the Most Powerful Woman in Banking for the third year in a row. "We have an obligation to create a diverse and inclusive culture in our organizations."

Only two women hold the reins of a major U.S. bank — fewer than last year. And over the past few months, some of the industry's most respected women have stepped down from C-level roles.

"I agree the pace has been slow," said Pat Callahan, who retired as Wells Fargo's former chief administrative officer in August and accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award at the event. 

Callahan pointed to a recent study from McKinsey, which said it will take more than 100 years to close the gender gap in the C-Suite.

But Callahan disagreed with the findings, citing the progress she's observed firsthand. "We're going to get this right much sooner than that. There's been so many changes in the years that I've seen, and certainly there's so many changes still to come," she said.

The Community Impact Award went to Lori Chillingworth of Zions First National Bank — who is actually trying to make some of those changes.

Chillingworth recently launched a nonprofit, known as the Women's Leadership Institute, aimed at helping women in Utah gain prominent roles in politics and business.

In her speech, Lake, the No. 2 Woman in Banking, also talked about how the industry has changed since the financial crisis. "We have made mistakes. We have acknowledged them. We have apologized for them, and we have certainly paid for them," she said.

Going through "mortgage hell," though difficult at the time, has made banks stronger, Lake said — pointing, in particular, to stress tests and other crisis-era regulations.

Despite the changes, banking still attracts the "best and brightest" in the business world, and offers opportunities for long-term careers, Lake said.

After dinner, many bankers stuck around for the gala's after-party. The evening wound down in much the same lighthearted spirit that it began, as a 1920s-era jazz band serenaded a roomful of bankers, mingling (and sometimes dancing) as they enjoyed one last nightcap.

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