While it may not have been by design, women are crashing through the glass ceiling of the credit card industry.

Earlier this year, Citicorp's Roberta J. Arena was named executive vice president, heading the No. 1 credit card bank's North American and European card operations.

In mid-August, Beverly B. Wells was appointed president of Wachovia Bank Card Services, filling the shoes of Jerry D. Craft, the marketing whiz who exited last year.

Women head an impressive list of card programs, including Barnett Banks. Inc., Nations-Bank Corp, Wells Fargo & Co., Marine Midland Banks Inc. and Star Banc.

"When I started out, there were not many women in senior positions"' said Cynthia A. Graham, president of Barnett Card Services in Jacksonville, Fla.

Ms. Graham, 44, a graduate of the Wharton School of Business, has been in banking for 18

She said females have outnumbered males three to one,' but, "they tended to be in support functions, running the note department or customer service - providing services, but not making loan decisions."

A 1993 Bureau of Labor Statistics survey found that 70.6% of bank employees were women. Ms. Graham said that typically, the proportion is highest at entry level, tapering off at mid-level, with a sprinkling at the top.

Financial Women International, a Maryland-based research group, reports that in 1940 only 5% of banking industry managerial posts went to women, but by 1993, that number reached almost 50%. Still, just 2% of the upper echelons of banking management is comprised of women.

The chief of Barnett's $1.2 billion outstanding card portfolio, said today, senior management is more inclined to consider individuals, regardless of sex, based on who will make the sacrifices necessary for the demanding assignments.

"One of the things women have done over last 10 or 15 years is to demonstrate a willingness to do what's required for top level positions - travel, relocate, [put in] long hours." she said. "I've done all of that."

Ms. Wells. who captured the top job at Wachovia Bank Card Services in Atlanta after a 17-year career at the bank, maintained women in senior positions today had to be noticed 15 years ago.

"Generally, over the years I've paid no attention to being a woman, and neither did my company."

Even so, Ms. Wells said banks may have recognized that women have good managerial and operational processing skills that are necessary for positions in credit cards and cash management.

"Those were areas where women were permitted to have responsible jobs 20 years ago," she said.

Ms. Wells, who began her career as a systems operator, worked in Wachovia's cash management division before assuming her role as president of card services.

She administers a credit card portfolio of more than $3.7 billion in outstandings with 3.5 million cardholders.

Nearly 30 years ago, Collin G. McKenny, senior vice president of Cincinnati-based Star Bank Card Services Group, interviewed with several financial institutions in her home town of Seattle after graduating from the University of Washington in 1966.

While the National Bank, of Commerce told her that women with college degrees were hired as bank tellers, she had a more memorable experience at Seafirst Corp.

"On my third interview, the man [conducting the meeting] said, `for us to hire a girl as a management trainee she had to be 28 or 29, married and physically incapable of having children.' "

Peoples National Bank did not have such stringent rules. Ms. McKenny became

the second female management trainee hire, and ultimately ran its credit card program.

She moved to Barclay's Bank, heading up North American bank card strategy in 1985.

For the last six years, the 50-year-old executive has presided over a $300 million card program for Star Banc, which has grown 25% in the past year. While her rise has been steady, the road was not always smooth.

"Is there an old boys network? Absolutely," Ms. McKenny stated. "I figure the generation behind me will bust through that."

Ms. McKenny, who sits on the Visa Risk Control Advisory Board, has chaired the American Bankers Association Bank Card School, and sat on the ABA Executive Committee. "I've been the only woman in executive groups all my career, but that's O.K., I get along just fine."

Anne M. Moore, the 50-year-old president of Synergistics Research Corp., an Atlanta-based consulting firm, was the first woman hired for Bank South's management training program in September 1966.

She said the 1964 anti-discrimination legislation forced bankers to begin drafting women into higher ranks.

She added that women like Eileen Friars, president of NationsBank Card Services, who were graduating from college at that time or shortly after, reaped the benefits of those laws, which created opportunities for advancement in industries previously reserved for men.

Ms. Friars got her MBA from Harvard in 1974. She noted that there were few women in the prestigious business school and the male graduate students resented them.

In her subsequent 15-year career as a business consultant, working with many chief executives and bank boards, she rarely saw other women. That's changing, she said.

"The market today has made it critical to have the best people in right job," said Ms. Friars. "Competition makes good people rise to the top."

Ms. Friars. who manages a $5.2 billion outstanding card portfolio for the Charlotte. N.C.-based bank, said that the "old matronly image" of the successful businesswoman has diminished now that more of them are reaching the heights of their professions.

Although she didn't have any statistics on the subject, consultant K. Shelley Porges, of Porges/Hudson Marketing Inc. in San Francisco, said she believes the credit card business, due to growth and expansion over the past 20 years, has opened doors for women.

"We get calls from recruiters all the time to find senior level executives - there isn't enough talent out there to fill the expansion that's been happening," she said.

"For talented women who have excellent track records, there's a lot of opportunities to step into."

Lee H. Chaplin, bank group executive for Barnett Banks, responsible for all consumer finance at Barnett, has two women who report to him, including Ms. Graham.

Mr. Chaplin, 55, has been a banker for 33 years. He said he has seen women lose out to men for promotions, due in part to pregnancy.

"When a woman takes time off to have a family, if they've been away for a while some of their peers have gotten ahead, not because they're more capable but because they've been there.

"Attitudes are clearly changing. People in leadership positions today are increasingly observed for what they can contribute and their effectiveness as opposed to whether they're male or female, or black or white."

Even so, Ms. Graham said, "We'll know we have arrived when the average woman has the same opportunities as the average man - I don't think we've gotten there yet."

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