Twenty years ago, when I first entered human resources in banking, it was believed with complete certainty that women would never be viewed as credible financial professionals in business development roles. Prevailing wisdom dictated that women would not be accepted as financial advisors by a predominantly male client base, and the "glass ceiling" was considered an unbreakable obstacle to the advancement of women into the executive ranks of banking.
The few women who had been able to attain leadership positions in business development faced further hurdles competing on a level playing field with their male counterparts. Business meetings were often conducted on golf courses and in country clubs, with banks providing country club memberships as perks to men upon promotion to a senior level of management. I vividly recall a female line manager who, upon finally achieving her long-awaited promotion, eagerly came to my office to obtain information about her newly earned country club membership. I had to tell her that though she had reached the qualifying level of management in the bank, there was no country club in the city that was going to accept her as a member unless she joined as a "wife" of a male member.
My, how times have changed. Today, the idea that women could not be client relationship managers or generate revenue seems incredulous. For the past several years, sales production reports have reflected women throughout all levels, and women are equal performers in business development roles. It didn't take long to prove the negative stereotype wrong. However, a complete shift to true gender equality has yet to be reached.
The challenge facing women in banking today is that career advancement has stalled. While women can certainly be found in senior leadership roles in all areas of banking, the position of CEO is still held primarily by men. In fairness, this may not be completely attributable to gender, as The Great Recession equally impacted men's abilities to progress their careers upward. For the past five years, keeping a job in banking has been a higher priority for both sexes than being promoted to higher levels in the organization.
In addition to proving themselves as credible business developers, another critical component to career advancement for women in banking has always been access to a strong mentor. With more women in senior and executive positions today there are greater opportunities for access to role models. A woman entering banking twenty years ago would have had a difficult time finding someone to emulate, and the few women who were in executive leadership roles were overwhelmed with other women seeking advice and counsel on career advancement. In Human Resources, we went so far as to organize mentorship "clubs" around those few women executives so that others could benefit from interactions with them.
The field of banking and finance is a much different place for women entering it now than it was even a relatively short time ago. Where women were once hired primarily for teller or administrative and support roles, now recruitment or promotion into any banking discipline is achievable for women. Better still, the ability to gain the experience necessary to fill senior positions is no longer blocked for women. Mentors are more available as coaches and advisors.
The CEO role, however, remains as elusive for women in the 21st century as it was in the 20th. Until this final hurdle is cleared, women will not truly hold equal footing and stature in banking.
Promotion to CEO roles will continue to be a challenge for women as the industry continues to consolidate. The glass ceiling, while cracked, remains to be shattered.
Noma Bruton is the chief human resources officer of Pacific Mercantile Bank in Costa Mesa, Calif. She has over 20 years of banking experience and writes the HR Sagacity: Insights in Banking & Finance blog.