An Evening with the Most Powerful Women

Last Thursday American Banker hosted its 14th annual awards gala to celebrate our 75 "Most Powerful" honorees. More than 800 men and women attended the event at Cipriani on 42nd street in Manhattan, a stately 1920s-era building that once housed the headquarters of Bowery Savings Bank. (If you haven't yet, check out the complete lists of the Most Powerful Women in Banking, the Women to Watch and the Most Powerful Women in Finance to see the award winners.)

Key themes of the night's speeches were how far women still need to go to achieve parity with men, and how, even at the highest ranks of banking and finance, women are always being watched to see if they can handle the pressure. "People still wonder if we will break," said BNY Mellon President Karen Peetz, who was honored as the No. 1 Most Powerful Woman in Banking. That's why women in this industry need to have grit, she said in this video clip of her speech.

But, on the positive side, sometimes others are watching women to see if they're ready for more, Nandita Bakhshi, president and chief executive at Bank of the West and the No. 1 Woman to Watch, said in her speech "As 'they' watch you strive and stretch, they are more inclined to bet on you, by awarding you positions of greater responsibility," she said, "sometimes when even you may not believe that you are ready."

Check out this clip of Bakhshi's speech, in which she urges women to leave their comfort zones. "Always seek a position that is one-third comfortable, one-third a stretch and one-third, pure white-knuckle terror," she said. "The kite, after all, only rises against the wind."

Diane D'Erasmo, a former HSBC executive who has been part of the rankings for years, accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award, and Maureen Wilkinson, of HarborOne Bank, received the Community Impact Award, for her work in promoting financial literacy.

D'Erasmo gave a speech looking back at how she balanced a 40-year career in banking while raising a family. She spoke about the birth of her third child, at which time the CEO of the company where she worked at the time asked her just how many children she planned to have on his watch. "I can't say it was easy," she said. "I love my work, I love being a mom, and I did want it all. So I just pushed ahead." Check out her video clip here.

In a separate interview about her achievements, D'Erasmo also reflected on the importance of getting a little uncomfortable. "My biggest stretches and biggest successes came when others gave me opportunities I never would have raised my hand for," she said.

Academy Award-winning actress Geena Davis addressed attendees about the role of unconscious bias in perpetuating deeply held assumptions about gender norms. Check out some of the video footage of her speech here. A lack of women represented in positions of power in media and entertainment — women are often secretaries instead of executives, for example — reinforces gender stereotypes about what power and influence look like. "Media images have always been had a very strong impact on how girls see themselves, their ambitions and their aspirations," Davis said, adding that they can make a lasting impression on young women who may dream of a career in financial services. She also announced a new research project in partnership with American Banker. (Coincidentally, Zions Bank, which is sponsoring the project, took home one of the team awards at the event.)

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A Seat at the Table: Women have barely cracked the glass ceiling in banking, says former Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. chair Sheila Bair. Organizations used to say fewer women were promoted to senior positions because there were fewer women in the ranks to promote — an excuse that no longer works. Female representation among employees is high, and yet their promotions are still few. "Hiring women is still viewed by many male financial leaders as a matter of social obligation, rather than smart business practice, notwithstanding a growing body of research showing that diversity is good for profitability," Bair says, adding that it's time U.S. financial institutions began realizing the value women bring to the executive suite and boardroom. "Look around you guys," she says, addressing bank CEOs. "Yours would be a better firm if there were more female faces around your conference table."

Blind Spot: "Having a seat at the conference table is not the same as having a voice," says Ghela Boskovich, the director of global business development for Zafin and founder of FemTechGlobal. "Despite being half of the population, women are not given equal representation in banking in print, on the conference stage, in executive leadership, in product development, in strategy or in the boardroom." The first step to ending sexism in banking is recognizing male privilege and unconscious bias, she says. It's a blind spot for men, who don't realize how much they benefit while their female counterparts' advancement and contributions remain limited. "Unequal representation is so normalized that any woman applying for a leadership role is regarded as aberrant or exceptional," Boskovich says. Women who help promote other women are penalized on their performance reviews, while men who value diversity actually get a bump up in their reviews, she adds.

Corporate Climate Change: Just like climate change, it is impossible to deny the gender bias in banking, says Sam Maule, director and senior practice lead of digital and fintech at NTT Data Americas and creator of FemTech Leaders. But denial is rampant on both of those issues nonetheless. He writes about three patterns of discrimination he has found most common in banking: that which "comes with the territory;" the cases where women are "too busy or too focused on their career to be bothered by" gender bias; and the deeply and blatantly sexist trolls that live among us.

Tech Talks: To ensure that women are included in digital banking's future, the fintech industry must reach girls before college, says Yolande Piazza, chief operating officer for Citi FinTech. "Many of the students we talk to in the schools — who plan to go to colleges and universities — had never thought about studying engineering or computer science simply because of a lack of exposure to what a job in that field really means," she says. However, interest in pursuing tech careers rose 21% among girls in a Citi program that provides mentoring and internships in IT to high school students, Piazza says.

Role Call

In a big shake-up of top executives at Wells Fargo — one that seems to get even bigger with each passing day — Avid Modjtabai moved up to become the head of a newly created unit that combines the innovation group with corporate payments and some consumer banking operations. Her group, called the Payments, Virtual Solutions and Innovation unit, will focus on digital and online offerings, investments in research and development, and strategic partnerships. Seven business lines, including consumer credit cards and treasury management, now report to Modjtabai, who was previously head of consumer lending. In addition, three new people were added to the company's operating committee, including Mary Mack, who had been named the head of community banking this summer. News of those changes came out just before Wells' Chairman and Chief Executive John Stumpf decided Wednesday to step down immediately in an effort to quell the firestorm over phony account openings. Wells reports third-quarter earnings Friday, and new CEO Tim Sloan will be on the hot seat.

Carrie Tolstedt has left Wells Fargo, rather than continue working through yearend as initially planned. She will forgo all unvested stock, about $19 million in value, and agreed not to cash in outstanding options while an internal review of the cross-selling scandal is underway. Neither Tolstedt nor Stumpf will receive a bonus for this year.

Debbie Matz, the former chairman of the National Credit Union Administration, has joined the board of Mutual of Omaha Bank in Nebraska.

Eastern Bank in Boston has named Kathleen Henry general counsel and secretary. She was previously general counsel at Plymouth Rock Assurance.

The founder of Summit Bank in Oakland, Calif., Shirley Nelson, has become the chairman and dropped her CEO role.

Julia Newton has stepped down as chief executive of MB Bancorp in Forest Hill, Md.

In Case You Missed It

Listen to Your Mother: Jamie Dimon, chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, discussed a formative experience involving his mom at The Wall Street Journal's Women in the Workplace event. Dimon said his dad taught him: Your mother is right.

Same-Day Solution: U.S. banks should now be able to receive same-day payments. But same-day payments are by no means real-time payments, and same-day speed may not be enough in an increasingly digital world. "The key here is the ubiquity," said Janet Estep, president and CEO of Nacha. "Users from any bank can reach anyone else with a same-day payment because of these new clearing and settlement windows." The automated clearing house network has a "skinny" architecture that provides connections to all U.S. bank accounts and allows banks to innovate off of it, Estep said.

Big Hits for Small Banks: Small banks are taking harder regulation hits these days, said Julie Stackhouse, head of supervision at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, of her biggest takeaway from this year's community banking conference co-hosted by the Fed and the Conference of State Bank Supervisors. "The smaller you are, the higher the relative cost of regulation," Stackhouse said. "I don't think we can look past that." She said this raises questions about the role of regulators in reducing compliance burdens and whether consolidation is the right solution for banks wanting to scale.

Chat Bots: USAA has expanded its voice-controlled digital assistant to PC users. "Banking can be a little behind," said Prianka Advani, assistant vice president of bank daily experiences at USAA. "You can order an Uber car with a voice command, and we want to get there," she said. About 70% of all interactions between USAA and its customers happen via mobile app. The updated digital assistant can execute typically complex tasks in about five seconds.

Beyond Banking

Paging Peggy Olson: NPR has uncovered some recordings of American author Studs Terkel's interviews in the 1970s. In one, he talks to an ad executive about being the "token woman" at her firm and navigating the male-dominated industry. "You are the only woman at the agency," he says. "Well, I'm the only female producer at the agency," she replies. She talks about being mistaken for the secretary amongst unfamiliar, new clients in the office and asking direct questions in meetings where the men would respond while looking at her boss or any other man in the room. Although she was the equal of everyone at the table, and one of the top 10 highest paid women in the company, "I make them very nervous," she tells Terkel. "Some of them can't categorize me. Here I am this young girl — 'She's not married, what's the matter with her? Doesn't she want a real life as a woman?' There are always labels people use."

Pinksourcing: The Huffington Post has produced a short satirical video ad for the fictional company Pinksourcing, which helps companies "maximize their output while cutting back on costs" with "the cheapest and best workforce right here in the good ol' U.S. of A — women!" It illustrates the gender bias women at work face daily — fewer raises, less pay, denial of access to birth control without a co-pay. "Remember, women don't want to be working anyway," Kristen Bell says in the video. "They'd rather be home taking care of the family while their husband gets to make life choices and follow his dreams and play fantasy football."

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