My first experience in banking was in the Citizens Bank of Edmond bookkeeping department in 1998 on the bank's second floor, which was also home to human resources, operations, item processing and customer service. The second floor was exclusively female. Women also filled the other traditional female banking roles of tellers, new accounts representatives and assistants. The senior bank officers, lenders and directors at that time were male and the playing field was, quite apparently, unequal.

When the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City offered me a position, I ran to the opportunity. In my nine years there, I found a work environment that upheld and practiced equality. Promotions and positions of influence were based exclusively on merit.

Immediately upon joining the team, I had advocates that ensured me a seat at the table if my performance deserved it. FRB Kansas City's Critical Success Factors included "Diversity of Thought" and the commitment showed.

With other high performers, women, minority voices and underrepresented staff quickly rose through the ranks and future stars like Esther George and Barbara Pacheco ascended to positions of incredible influence. Today, eight of the twelve members of the FRB Kansas City's Management Committee are women with Esther George now serving as President.

The inspirational change in FRB Kansas City's management team's complexion was led by its former President and current Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Vice Chairman Thomas Hoenig. While at FRB Kansas City, Hoenig advocated seats for the best minds and encouraged the "leaning in" much discussed in Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. This change agent was a visionary man identifying the need for and benefit of diversity of thought and backgrounds.

The resulting trailblazers actively encouraged other high potential women to fire up their own path with eloquent assertiveness. I tried to carry that progressive vision and advocacy for diversity when I re-entered community banking at Citizens Bank of Edmond. Thirteen years after my tenure in the bookkeeping department, and through the concerted effort to develop high-potential staff, five of the six members of the executive management team are women. All areas of the bank are now rich with diversity, including our board of directors. The playing field has leveled.

What areas have the most advancements been made?

Throughout the banking and finance industry, there are many examples of successful women, like Sallie Krawcheck, who unselfishly share their experiences and lessons learned on their rise in the ranks.

Sandberg's book has highlighted the need for both men and women to sponsor high potential women and encourage them to take a seat at the table. The support women lend to other women in the workplace has dramatically improved in my career. Rather than seeing one another as competition as described in Sandberg's book, there is now empathy, support and advocacy for the rising female stars in our industry.

Providing additional leadership in this effort, our trade associations and regulatory agencies have also done a wonderful job engaging women with great representation of women at the highest levels. If you peruse through social media to engage with bank editors and journalists, you'll find mostly women. As many community banks begin to address management succession issues, I believe that more boards and current presidents and CEOs will be willing to look at previously considered nontraditional candidates for these roles. High potential, high aptitude women should greatly benefit.

What challenges remain?

A key ongoing challenge for women leaders in the workplace is juggling the typical female overachiever's expectation to be the perfect leader, perfect wife and perfect mother. The "superwoman" syndrome often keeps us from constructing the social network that men are able to build and fills us with guilt when we fall short of achieving the mystical "work/life balance." It takes a while for a professional woman to learn that store-bought cookies are sufficient for school events, dinners from a box aren't a travesty and "Calgon take me away" five-minute baths are the bomb.

As more women ascend to the leadership positions in and around our industry and are able to mentor other "superwomen", female leadership will be less of an exception. Playing off of Madeleine Albright's famous statement, there is a special place in heaven for men and women who help women.

Jill Castilla is executive vice president of Citizens Bank of Edmond.