Gaining access to the C-suite is rare for women in banking, and holding the chief risk officer/risk executive title is rarer still. 

The shortage of female CROs is disheartening, given the path to the job is rather uncharted territory. The role, which only formally emerged in the early '90s, has become increasingly prevalent since the financial crisis as bank boards push for greater oversight from the risk management function. It is quickly becoming one of the most critical positions in banking today because of the volume, velocity and complexity of risks affecting a firm's reputation and its ability to meet its strategic goals. Even though this position is not mandated for banks under $10 billion in assets, banks of all sizes, especially community banks, see real value in cultivating a strong CRO.  

As such, filling the position presents the perfect opportunity for a bank to bring a female executive into its C-suite. Instead, I've witnessed a rather alarming trend recently in which banks are adding the chief risk officer mantle to an existing executive, such as the chief credit officer. This inclination does little to increase the male-to-female ratio in banks' executive committees, given that most CCOs are male. Additionally, there are also several reasons why a CCO may not be the best person from the CRO job.

Like CEOs, who have their hand on the pulse of the entire company, the CRO must review the macro landscape of emerging risks in addition to legal/compliance, operational, credit, market, liquidity, strategic and reputational risks. The CRO must understand the interconnectedness of risks, identify boundary risks and call out operational risks, which can't always be modeled. This requires a broad background and collaborative skill set in order to clarify risk and perform scenario analysis. Thinking between the lines and outside the box are important attributes. The career experience of the credit executive, who typically grew up in the lending world where modeling risk and determining provisions for credit losses is well understood, doesn't seem broad enough for the CRO role. Many of these executives have little exposure to areas like operations, technology or human resources (people risk). If we can all agree that operational risk is one of the key challenge areas facing banks today, then it seems as though candidates beyond the CCO should also be considered for CRO position.

Additionally, CCOs are responsible for establishing and managing a bank's loan policies. The role of the CRO is to independently question and assess current risks, controls and practices. Can an individual really question the controls and practices they developed and manage day-to-day? 

I believe the best risk executives are individuals who understand a broad swath of a bank's business, particularly the operational risks associated with failed processes, people, systems or external events. There are many qualified women working within the industry who fit this bill.

Caryl Athanasiu, chief operational risk officer at Wells Fargo; Sandra Laughlin, chief risk management officer at MidCountry Financial Corp.; and Tracey Dedrick, chief risk officer at Hudson City Savings Bank, are three examples of women risk executives who bring previous enterprisewide experience to their current job. None of these women came through the traditional chief credit officer career path. Having a background in enterprisewide roles means prior experience and exposure to various facets of day-to-day and long-term strategic risk management.

Where do we find more females with the key talents to run the risk function, and how do we cultivate more women to take on enterprisewide roles within the company?

I have three important calls to action.

First, I call upon Sallie Krawcheck to prioritize talent management for the CRO/risk executive position. Recently, Krawcheck, a former senior executive at Bank of America and Citigroup, bought 85 Broads, a global network of 30,000 members whose mission is to promote women as business leaders. Krawcheck, a strong example and advocate for women in executive positions, has highlighted research that indicates greater involvement and participation from women in business both improves shareholder returns and helps the overall economy. At the helm of 85 Broads, Krawcheck can play a critical role in advancing the dialogue, and promoting the role of women CROs.

Second, I call upon the media to shine a spotlight on top female risk executives. Given that the job is increasingly critical to a bank's success, I look forward to the acknowledgement and recognition of this role and the women in it.

Lastly, I call upon banks to build strong skill development programs that encourage women to broaden their exposure across the company. Women need to take an active role in cultivating their own diverse skill sets and broadening their job experience. Building the broad skills and the broad relationships will better equip them to go after what I believe to be the most important job in banking today: that of the CRO.

Susan Palm is vice president of industry solutions for MetricStream, a provider of enterprisewide governance, risk, compliance and quality management solutions.