Like it or not, women at the highest ranks of banking and finance are always being watched to see if they can handle the pressure.

That's particularly true "when there is a crisis or significant threat for us to manage," BNY Mellon President Karen Peetz said in a speech at American Banker's Most Powerful Women in Banking and Finance awards dinner in New York Thursday. "People still wonder if we will break."

Nandita Bakhshi, the president and chief executive at Bank of the West, shared that view, saying she has gained a more keen sense of how closely people watch her as she has risen through the ranks.

Not "in the Orwellian sense, although I am sure there probably is some of that too," she joked in her speech at the awards dinner. But "for the grace, the dignity, the poise, and above all, for the professionalism and the thoughtfulness, with which you conduct yourself" on a daily basis, she said.

Peetz and Bakhshi were among 75 women honored at Thursday's 14th annual awards gala.

Peetz, who is retiring later this year, was honored as the Most Powerful Women in Banking for the second time, and Bakhshi, who took the helm at San Francisco-based Bank of the West in June, was named the No. 1 Woman to Watch. Mary Callahan Erdoes, the CEO at J.P. Morgan Asset Management, was honored as the Most Powerful Woman in Finance for the fourth straight year.

A key theme of the night's speeches was how far women have come in recent decades — and how far they still need to go to achieve parity with men.

Peetz said that the banking industry was such a boys' club when she began her career in the early 1980s that she used to wear a bow tie to appear more masculine. Today, women hold nearly half of all jobs in banking and the number in senior roles continues to climb.

The conversation is far different today that in the past, said Diane D'Erasmo, the former vice chair of corporate banking at HSBC Bank USA. There's now data showing that diversity enhances corporate performance, innovation and return on investment, said D'Erasmo, who retired in June and took the stage to accept the Lifetime Achievement Award honoring her 40-year career.

Still, "the numbers haven't moved fast enough and the future forecasts for gender parity are downright bleak," D'Erasmo said. "None of us wants to wait 20 years before we can stand here and say, 'We've come a long way, baby.' "

There's no simple solution to accelerating women's progress; the answer lies in a multitude of cultural changes, D'Erasmo said. For many, that has meant implementing programs within organizations to help advance women's careers. D'Erasmo herself helped found a women's networking group at HSBC in 2001, made its International Women's Day celebration an annual event and sat on an advisory board promoting a gender-balanced workforce.

"Our lifetimes, chock full of achievements and misadventures, can shape not only our decisions today but the questions we ask tomorrow," she said. "It's important then, to look back before looking forward."

Bakhshi also acknowledged the importance of mentorship.

"If I have learned to navigate the corporate landscape with any degree of effectiveness, it is because I have had excellent guides and mentors," she said, citing Beth Mooney, the chairman and CEO at KeyCorp, as one of her current mentors. Mooney was the Most Powerful Woman in Banking in 2013, 2014 and 2015 and this year was the inaugural inductee in American Banker's Hall of Fame, for being a three-peat winner of the Most Powerful Woman in Banking award.

Bakhshi left TD Bank earlier this year as North American head of direct channels to become president and CEO of Bank of the West. She began her career in banking as a teller, soon after moving to Albany, N.Y., from Calcutta, India. It wasn't what she had imagined for herself, but "you play the hand you're dealt," she said.

Bakhshi said that while she knew she was being watched as she took on more responsibilities, she never really minded. Sometimes that just means others were watching to see if she was a "role model worth emulating." 

"As 'they' watch you strive and stretch, they are more inclined to bet on you, by awarding you positions of greater responsibility — sometimes when even you may not believe that you are ready," she said.

That's why it's important for women to step toward tough situations, not away from them; and to learn how it feels to lose, as well as win, individually and as a team at the highest levels of a company, Peetz said. Similarly, Bakhshi talked about the importance of pushing boundaries.

"Always seek positions that draw you out of your comfort zone," Bakhshi said, sharing a rule she lives by, and calls the Rule of the Thirds. "Always seek a position that is one-third comfortable, one-third a stretch and one-third, pure white-knuckle terror. The kite, after all, only rises against the wind."

Peetz imparted perhaps the most important lesson of the night as she paid tribute to her late mother and the example she set: It's not all about a person's career, but the lives she touches. Peetz said spending more time with family and friends was at the heart of her decision to retire later this year.

"As I reflect on the past 30-plus years, the most important lesson that I have learned on my journey has been the importance of work-life balance," she said.

"I mean work-life balance as a long-term definition of who we really are and what really matters to us during our time on this earth; work-life balance as a definition of what matters to us beyond the titles, beyond the compensation and beyond all the heady ego experiences in the C-suite."

More than 800 men and women attended the awards dinner held at Cipriani on E. 42nd Street, a stately 1920s-era building that once housed the headquarters of Bowery Savings Bank. One of the evening's speakers and winners, Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank's Dorothy Savarese, said that while she was honored to share the stage with so many accomplished women, she looks forward to the day when women are not in the minority in the C-suite and won't need a special dinner to acknowledge their achievements.

But, she quickly added, "When that day comes, let's all agree to still meet."

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