Facing a layoff from her job in Chicago and expecting her third child, Mary Dwyer Pembroke needed help.
The former Capitol Hill staff member was new to the Windy City and had few professional contacts there, so she turned to an old reliable back in Washington: Women in Housing and Finance.
Within three days a member of the group landed Ms. Pembroke an interview that led to her next job. For two decades members have been using Women in Housing and Finance to network with regulators and fellow professionals in the financial services industry.
The six women who founded the group had been excluded from many of the male-dominated forums to which financial professionals belonged, such as the Exchequer Club.
"Men had old-boy networks completely built in where they could go to lunch with and rub elbows with other men," said Ms. Pembroke, now government relations director at Freddie Mac.
Many of the founders worked on Capitol Hill, like Mary Dunn, now a senior vice president at the Credit Union National Association.
"There were just so few women in positions of visibility and key strategic places," Ms. Dunn said. "It is really encouraging to see how the organization has grown, but still hasn't lost its primary objective: to give people of any gender the chance to network and meet policymakers."
Today major Washington players are members, including Ellen Seidman, director of the Office of Thrift Supervision; Donna A. Tanoue, chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.; and Julie L. Williams, chief counsel for the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.
But there are also many junior and mid-level professionals among its 700 members. And 20% of its ranks are now men-a phenomenon the group's founders attribute to the quality of its programs.
"It has developed into one of the premier organizations in Washington," said longtime member Barbara Timmer, a partner at the Brand, Lowell & Ryan law firm. "It brings together government types, the private sector, the nonprofits, and the trade associations."
Longtime members said Women in Housing and Finance has survived because it has been able to keep them current on shifts in the industry and help them adapt.
The group is best known for its monthly luncheons that feature speeches by industry or government leaders. Its first speaker was Anita Miller, who was a member of the former Federal Home Loan Bank Board. At the time, she was the only woman on the board of a major banking agency.
Guests have included then-Vice President George Bush, former Senate Banking Committee Chairman William Proxmire, and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who touted the benefits of micro lending.
House Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach spoke to the group Monday about the status of House-Senate negotiations on the financial reform legislation.
Women in Housing and Finance has seven committees focused on issues of concern to the industry. These panels-which range from a few dozen to almost 200 people-hold regular meetings devoted to technology, legislation, or other cutting-edge matters. To encourage candor from speakers and freewheeling questions from members, reporters may cover these sessions but may not quote any of the speakers.
Besides maintaining a job bank and publishing a newsletter, the group plans to launch a Web site soon.
Two years ago Women in Housing and Finance established a foundation to provide charitable services to women and their families in the Washington area. For instance, the foundation conducted a series of personal finance education programs this year.
To celebrate its 20th anniversary, the group has scheduled a gala for Sept. 24 at the Four Seasons hotel in Washington. A handful of members, including former FDIC Chairman Ricki Helfer and Morgan Stanley Dean Witter's former top lawyer Christine A. Edwards, will be honored for their professional achievements. A silent auction will be held to raise money for the foundation. Ms. Clinton is among the VIPs invited.
Meanwhile, the group's officers are looking ahead.
One of WHF president Diane M. Casey's first initiatives is a strategic planning process to set the group's course for the next few years. Like the institutions that employ many of its members, the group faces challenges from industry consolidation, legislative conflicts, and technological advances.
While Women in Housing & Finance seeks to provide a forum for informed debate, it stays neutral on policy questions.
"One thing WHF has done is to allow people to rise above party differences and hear from everyone," Ms. Pembroke said. "That's the benefit of a bipartisan group. No one is the arch-enemy, and you can work with everyone."
Yet despite these formal activities, members agreed that their biggest gain has been a network of personal support.
"People have made lifetime friends from the group," said Ms. Casey, national director of financial services at Grant Thornton. "It's very close-knit."