A few years back, Provident Bank set out to start a women-in-banking group within the organization.
A group like that doesn't work without buy-in from the bank's female executives, women such as Bernadette Macko.
Her reaction? Not interested.
"My initial thought about that was, 'Women in banking? I don't really want to identify myself as a woman in banking. I've spent too many years trying to be identified as a banker, rather than identifying myself as a woman in banking,'" Macko recalled.
Today, there's no need for the distinction.
An industry that seemingly once limited women to the role of bank teller now has women in the top spots.
Macko, a former part-time teller herself, is first vice president and corporate cash management manager at Provident. Linda Bowden is New Jersey regional president for PNC Bank. Michelle Lee and Lucia Gibbons are pretty much running things for Wells Fargo in the Northeast and across the whole East Coast respectively, with Jane Navarria following close behind as business banking manager for the state. Angela Snyder is CEO of Fulton Bank of New Jersey.
And those banks are some of the most powerful in the state. Wells Fargo is the No. 2 commercial bank in New Jersey, with more than $32 billion in deposits. PNC Bank is No. 4, with $22 billion. Fulton Bank is No. 10, with $2.7 billion.
Clearly that means banks are picking the best people to do the job, and not just trying to strike a gender balance, said Snyder, who in addition to her role at Fulton Bank is also executive vice chairman of the board of the New Jersey Bankers Association.
"I believe that executives in general believe in and are committed to having a diversity of thought around the table," she said. "And if they don't have a diverse table, they're not going to be successful."
Women in banking disagree on the root cause of this monumental shift in the industry. It has been slow, sure, but also steady, so some attribute it to the passage of time and the increasing number of women in the workforce overall.
Others argue that women as a group have certain strengths — critical thinking, collaboration, an uncanny ability to multitask — that lend themselves to today's fast-paced business environment.
And then there's the broader push for diversity — not so much for the sake of numbers but more as the country's population has changed — that may have played a role.
But there's also a collective sense that women haven't done anything in particular to create this shift — that it is more about each individual woman being smart, working hard and making the right moves.
Navarria, for instance, the head of New Jersey business banking for Wells Fargo, started out on the retail side of the industry. When she switched over to commercial, she found that men really dominated that side.
"So what really helped me was getting formally credit-trained in commercial lending," Navarria said.
And when she had opportunities to take positions that would grow her skill set — though not necessarily her title or her salary — she took them.
"Sometimes progression is sideways and backwards. And I purposely made moves to get more skills," Navarria said.
What also helped was a mentor, a woman who Navarria describes as "a gift from heaven."
"Sometimes we would chuckle about the things that would occur, and we would talk about the best way to move through so you would never shrink from the challenges but figure out the ways to positively work through the challenges," Navarria said. "She also was probably one of the toughest people I ever worked with. Very, very blunt and to the point. And you can benefit from that, too."
Brenda Ross Dulan, the southern New Jersey regional president for Wells Fargo, credits her mentor with helping her make the opposite shift, from commercial banking — she was an analyst covering the oil and gas industries — to retail.
Switching from commercial to retail is like a podiatrist trying to be a heart surgeon, she said, so that woman, an executive at Wells Fargo who has since retired, was taking a risk by pushing Ross Dulan forward.
"I really, honestly, to this day appreciate what she did for me because it really set the stage for me," Ross Dulan said.
And encouraged her to start helping the next generation of women in banking benefit from her experience in the business.
"Sometimes when you walk in, you know that there's a hurdle. You walk in from the position of having to prove that you belong in the room," she said.
"I am a woman, so here's my perspective on it," she continued. "If you are running a P&L for the company, you want to show up well. You want to demonstrate that you are confident, you are strong, and you are excellent in your job."
Macko, of Provident Bank, has also come around to the importance of connecting, woman to woman.
"There are more and more women who feel very strongly that our path to where we got was slightly different than the gentlemen who work alongside us," Macko said. "I really do think about my colleagues here who are significantly younger than me, and I think it's important that they have women to mentor them along the way."
Quick take: A look at some of the top female bankers in New Jersey
First vice president and corporate cash management manager, Provident Bank
Macko got her start in banking as a part-time teller, when her son was going into kindergarten. During her interview for the job, her soon-to-be-boss — a woman — had two things to say: "She said to me, 'Don't let that kid become a problem.' Which he didn't," Macko recalled. "And she said to me, 'You're going to have to pick one of those names. I think that's a little confusing for customers.'" She was referring to Macko's use of both her maiden and married names, which was at the time uncommon. As a compromise, Macko turned her maiden name into a middle initial. "You wouldn't be able to have that kind of conversation with an employee today, and that was only 29 years ago," she said.
New Jersey business banking area manager , Wells Fargo
Early on in Navarria's banking career, it was sometimes tough to be heard. Her ideas were solid, and she had no problem speaking up. But her comments often fell on deaf ears in rooms almost always filled with men. "You may be in a room where there are 10 men around a table, and you may have a good suggestion, and sometimes you voice that suggestion and it's not heard," she said. So Navarria figured out a workaround: She would write down her idea and pass it to a man to have him share it with the group, Navarria recalled with a laugh. Thankfully now, her days of passing notes during meetings are over. "The women's perspective is highly valued in the business community of today," she said.
Brenda Ross Dulan
Southern New Jersey regional president, Wells Fargo
Ross Dulan was reluctant to discuss instances of overt sexism or racism that she has encountered in her career. "Have I felt like I faced that? Yes. Have I felt like I faced that on several occasions? Yes," she said. "Sometimes, though you are coming in as 'Brenda,' sometimes that does come with the burden of representing all women or all black women." The problem that can result is an extreme pressure to prove yourself, which can be detrimental to career growth, she added. "The potential mistake could be that you over-focus on what you represent as opposed to who you are," she explained. "And being who you are allows people to see the depth and breadth of you and allows you to show your successes."
CEO, Fulton Bank of New Jersey
In the past, Snyder said, women were seen as lacking in self-confidence because they were quick to admit to gaps in their skills sets. Now that collaboration and team-building are seen as plusses in the higher echelons of the corporate world, women are truly coming into their own. "Women are great collaborators. Our favorite thing is our girlfriends, right? We collaborate. We support each other," Snyder said. "My end result is better if I collaborate with a group of people." So when Snyder has set out to build teams in the workplace, she makes sure no one on her team thinks like she does. "Why do I want that? I'm already bringing that perspective," she said.
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