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Standing Tall

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Linda Bowden, New Jersey regional president, PNC Bank.
Linda Bowden, New Jersey regional president, PNC Bank. - ()

Linda Bowden once heard a story from a former colleague — a woman in banking like herself — about getting called in for an annual review and being told quite bluntly that she would be getting a pretty paltry raise.

There were a lot of men on staff who had families, the woman was told. They had mouths to feed. They really needed the money, and the bank couldn't afford to give her what all the men in the office were getting.

“There was sort of a belief that the woman probably was not the breadwinner in the family, so the institutions didn't really have the same obligation to give them the same kind of raise, even for the same kind of work,” said Bowden, now New Jersey regional president at PNC Bank. “And that's just the way it was.”

That was 30-some years ago, and Bowden is quick to point out that scenario never happened to her.

Or did it?

“Maybe it did happen to me. I don't know,” Bowden said with a laugh. “You kind of look back and say, 'Wow, can you believe the way things used to be?'”

Bowden laughs because that's not the way the banking industry is these days. Like so many industries long dominated by men, the banking world in New Jersey increasingly is a place where women can and do thrive.

Bowden is one of those women. She's running the ship at PNC Bank in New Jersey, and she's carved out a home for herself in powerful circles that include other powerful players in banking, business and politics.

Although she's spent the past 34 years in banking, it wasn't her first career choice. She graduated high school at a time when women were encouraged to become nurses or teachers. So she taught elementary school.

In time, Bowden, a self-described “Jersey girl” from Jersey City, decided she wanted something different. So she took an entry-level position at a small bank in New Jersey, as a trusts and investment associate.

“I took a pay cut from teaching and went from 15 weeks vacation to two, but I just enjoyed it. And I thought, 'This is where I'd like to make my career,'” Bowden said.

So she started plowing through the ranks. She worked weekends, stayed late, went in early. She would talk about her son, who is now 26, but would never mention the stresses that come with balancing work and family.

She didn't want anyone to question her focus.

“As I started to get promoted, often I was the only woman in the room, but it was more around showing that not only was I capable, but I was really serious about wanting a career and wanting to get ahead,” Bowden said. “The biggest challenge (was) I really didn't know anything.”

But she learned. With only two women in senior positions to look up to, she didn't have a wealth of female mentors. And there were times when she struggled to be bold when the situation demanded it.

“If there were mistakes in my career, I think it was probably being too cautious, or being afraid of making a mistake or being afraid of failure,” Bowden said. “I did have that fear of a misstep, but that's the beauty of being at this end of my career: You realize that the mistakes can be good.”

Good because Bowden learned from those mistakes. When she felt she might be trying too hard to be collaborative at the expense of strong leadership, she dialed that back and worked on becoming more assertive.

That has turned her into the kind of leader her colleagues in the state's business community describe as “a commanding personality.” And her employees at PNC say she exudes an aura of authority. She doesn't have to say anything, but it's clear she is definitely the boss.

Her reach extends beyond PNC Bank's 335 branches in the state. Bowden has become heavily involved with Choose New Jersey, working to attract more companies — and by extension, jobs — to the state, and with the state Chamber of Commerce, where she's looking at how political reforms could benefit the businesses based here.

That puts her in frequent contact with powerful women such as Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, with whom she trades stories about motherhood as much as they talk business.

But although her conversations with other business women can veer toward the struggles particular to their gender, she said that gender is no longer something that defines women in the workplace.

“When we network with each other, those are some of the things we talk about. That's how we encourage each other,” Bowden said. “(But) I don't want to get too focused on the gender issues. I think we're successful because of who we are individually and the goals we've set for ourselves.”

But for the women coming after her, Bowden is aware that she has an obligation to set a strong example. She raises her hand and asks questions during meetings because women often stay too quiet. And she takes a seat at the head of table more often than not because women tend to avoid that position of power, too.

“I think often society does send very subtle signals to women that you're not supposed to make waves. You're supposed to kind of conform, and I would say, 'Don't fall prey to that,' ” Bowden said. “'Make waves.'”

E-mail to: maryj@njbiz.com

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