My first banking job came straight after college in 1974. Since I was on my way to law school, I wasn't looking for a career in banking; I was just looking for a job. I was hired by a financial institution operating under a consent order with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Although I didn't know it at the time, this may have actually been helpful, as the company was looking for women who might advance fairly quickly. I suspect there were fewer barriers for women in this company than with other companies not facing this type of regulatory order. Reflecting back, this was probably opportunity unrecognized.

I never did go to law school – I fell in love with banking and advanced my career in the industry by being open to serving in a variety of positions. One of my favorite quotes is, "We are all faced with a series of great opportunities disguised as impossible situations." (Chuck Swindoll).

Although I did not set out to be the first woman anything – except my childhood dream of becoming the President of the United States – there were a lot of opportunities to do so. I was privileged to be among the first women in various professional and community roles, but I'm more proud that having women in leadership roles in these organizations is now commonplace.  Fortunately there are fewer "firsts" out there now, but I am still amazed that we have yet to have a first woman commander in chief.

Serving as one of the earlier private banking officers was probably one of the more challenging positions I held early in my career. There were so many "good old boy” aspects (particularly socially) that could be difficult. The acceptance of women relationship managers has significantly improved over the years, and many barriers have long since been minimized. I have vivid memories of a very good client repeatedly turning down my offers of having lunch. Finally I asked if I had offended him. He explained to me that his wife did not think it was appropriate for a "lady" to buy him lunch or meet with him alone. The irony was he didn't see anything wrong with this – his wife was the one to object. Believe me, I had no amorous thoughts in mind. This experience just drove me to be the consummate professional in all situations.

I stand in the back of rooms quite often to stretch. At banking functions, the vast majority of the people in the chairs in front of me are men. This used to frustrate me, but I actually see opportunity. As current company leaders begin to consider retirement, I hope we can all encourage our younger coworkers, our daughters and granddaughters, to see this opportunity and be ready to ascend to upper level management positions.

It is also great that more women are choosing to round out their banking careers. We are less likely to stick to just one path – operations versus lending, for instance. Or finance versus treasury management. Continuing to broaden the knowledge and experience base will be a prelude to more women being prepared for those "C” level positions.  

One of the encouraging differences I have felt over my almost 40-year career is that women have become emboldened. There seems to be less of a need to live up to someone else's expectations and more confidence to follow our own paths. This positive trend, I think, is even more powerful than the Women's Movement of the 70s. I certainly mean no disrespect for all the paths that were blazed by women of that time. It is just a rounding out of opportunity. Thirty-plus years ago, it was about creating the opportunities necessary to succeed in business. Today it is about having choices. All of this took a lot of brave women uncovering those paths. Today it is about taking the path that makes the most sense for each of us.

Melanie J. Dressel is president and CEO of Columbia Banking System and Columbia Bank.