Eighty years ago, at a time when our country was coming out of the worst economic downturn in its history, Dr. Harold Stonier created the very first graduate-level school of banking to help prepare industry leaders to navigate in changing times. More than 200 bankers from around the nation attended the inaugural ABA Graduate School of Banking session in 1935. Not one of them was a woman.
Flash forward to the present: At last year's session of the ABA's Stonier Graduate School of Banking, 28% of the executive attendees were women. While this number represents significant progress, it still doesn't correspond with employment ratios within the industry and the total U.S. workforce. In 2014, women accounted for 63% of the banking industry workforce and 47% of our nation's workforce, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The advancement of women in banking has been a hot topic in recent years. More women today are raising the bar, but the standard started so low that we still have a long way to go before reaching gender parity at the executive level. Will we ever truly break the glass ceiling by following the status quo?
As a relative newcomer to the field whose career has been industry-agnostic, I can tell you firsthand that the issue of women's advancement is not limited to the realm of banking and finance. It is a challenge for women to ascend the corporate ladder in any industry.
On the flip side, the banking industry is as promising as any for the advancement of women. When I joined the team at UMB Bank, I was welcomed to an industry that felt like a close-knit community, with people who were eager and willing to share their knowledge. I learned a great deal from colleagues within my own bank as well as the peers and mentors I encountered at trade conferences and schools like Stonier. We should take full advantage of that knowledge and learn the underpinnings of the industry at every opportunity.
While mentors are more available to women than in the past, more can be done on this front. Women who have advanced in the industry must make it a priority to help the women following them realize their potential and share insights to help them develop the skills and mentality they need to succeed. Here is some advice I would share with women aiming to forge their path in banking:
Expand your experience. Gain a unique perspective and competitive edge by seeking out projects and positions that deviate from your experience base. While working at AT&T for 20 years, my role evolved from product research to include technical sales, marketing and contract negotiations.
Take risks and get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Establish yourself as a change agent and look for ways to reinvent the market. Early in your career is the best time to start. Make yourself a more marketable asset to organizations who value those that can navigate change.
Remain resilient and roll with the punches. There will be punches. Be ready and grow because of them.
Create advocates within the system who can and will vouch for your competency. Cultivate relationships with respected colleagues and mentors their support can help your career advancement.
Be willing to be mobile. While changing locales is sometimes a method for moving up the ranks, "mobility" needn't always be physical. Be willing to make lateral career moves to gain valuable experience that will help you succeed in the long term.
Integrate your work life and your personal life. Your work life and personal life are not mutually exclusive, and neither has to be sacrificed. Be comfortable integrating them in order to achieve balance.
There are nuances to every industry, but ultimately business is business. A lot of fundamental business practices and models cut across all industries, and banking is not an outlier.
It is also important to remember that banking very much remains a people business. Whether there is a man or a woman at the helm, banks must be mindful of meeting their communities' needs. We have a lot to do in the next 10 years as the payments infrastructure and delivery of banking services continue to evolve. The direction of the industry will depend on resilient and thoughtful leaders who are willing to take calculated risks, regardless of gender.
Christine Pierson is executive vice president of UMB Bank's consumer services division. She was named one of American Banker's 25 Women to Watch in 2014.