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Barriers to entry: With so few women on boards, is it any surprise so few women run banks in New Jersey?

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Nancy Graves, CEO and president of the Bank of New Jersey.
Nancy Graves, CEO and president of the Bank of New Jersey. - ()

In some respects, banking has changed so much in the past several decades as to be hardly recognizable, considering the transformations in technology, regulations and other aspects of the industry.

But the representation of women among bank leadership should not to be included on that list; at least, that’s the damning assessment from Nancy Graves, CEO and president of the Bank of New Jersey.

With this month’s retirement of Roselle Savings Bank’s 16-year CEO and president, Jill Schafhauser, Graves is among a select few women CEOs of New Jersey-based banks, a list that also includes Angela Snyder of Fulton Bank of New Jersey, Katherine Liseno of Metuchen Savings Bank and Jill Sung of Abacus Federal Savings Bank.

There’s no different narrative to be found among other C-suite positions, according to research from the Institute for Women’s Leadership and the Center for Women and Work, both at Rutgers University.

A 2015 study conducted by the two organizations, which used data collected from banks that belong to the New Jersey Bankers Association, found that 13 percent of chief financial officers and 10.2 percent of chief operating officers were women.

Lehman Sisters
“If Lehman Bros. had been Lehman Sisters, today’s economic crisis clearly would look quite different.”
That quip came from Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, after the financial fallout of 2008. It was enough to spark a discussion about a lack of aversion to risk and its links to the male dominance of the financial sector.
Whether or not more female staff in top financial sector slots would have made banks less likely to fail was even studied by organizations. One report that appeared in the Journal of Business Ethics showed findings consistent with the view that gender-based behavioral differences may affect corporate decisions. Other reports have come to different conclusions.
Regardless of where one stands on how tenable it is, it’s a hypothesis that may continue to be a topic of conversation.

That was a nearly imperceptible uptick from their study conducted three years prior.

What the figures point to is a clear discrepancy at the upper echelons of banks, one formed by a number of unresolved barriers to entry for women bankers.

“If you don’t have more women on bank boards, the men on those boards are going to continue to select people like them to run the banks,” Graves said. “You would expect that, as women come up through the ranks and as leadership positions open, they would rise to that top job, and we don’t necessarily see that happening.”

The contrast becomes clearer upon further inspection of the makeup of bank boards of directors in the Garden State: Slightly over half of banks have a woman on their boards, but around two-thirds of those only have one woman on the board, according to the data cited in the Rutgers study.

Overall, a snapshot of women directors on the boards of New Jersey banks shows they only account for 11.3 percent of directors, which is less than the 18.7 percent that’s been reported for Standard & Poor’s 500 finance companies.

This all makes for a troubling juxtaposition — an about eight-to-one ratio of men to women on bank boards in a state that’s one of the most diverse in the country by various measures.

“When I attend events in New Jersey, it’s a striking contrast to those in New York, which is a much more diverse group in terms of gender and ethnicity than we’re seeing in New Jersey,” Graves said. “Unfortunately, it’s part of the culture here, and I don’t know how that changes.”

Frank Sorrentino, CEO and president of ConnectOne Bank.
Frank Sorrentino, CEO and president of ConnectOne Bank.

On the other hand, Larisa Perry, who serves as lead region president for Wells Fargo’s Northeast market, is an industry veteran, like Graves, who can recall even worse cultures surrounding women in banking.

Starting with a laugh, she explained what the industry was once like by giving an anecdote:

“As the first female commercial lender working at a bank in Alabama, I had to call individuals and businesses in my portfolio (to review financial information). I remember one particular call where one gentleman kept saying, ‘Now, you’re whose secretary?’ I kept explaining that, no, actually I was the account officer on this man’s loan. Finally I just named a male banker so he would give me his information.”

Coming from that, it’s no surprise Perry believes that being selected for a leading role in a bank — in which she works under the direction of another woman, who also takes orders from a woman, just below the bank’s CEO in rank — evinces progress.

However, Perry herself concedes that improvement has been made in very gradual degrees.

At many banking institutions, there’s an equal spread of women and men in positions below the executive level. That parity degrades at each job title upgrade.

That’s something Janet Coletti, executive vice president of human resources at M&T Bank, could confirm. But she’s optimistic about the prospect of improvement across the industry.

“You really want to see people who look like you at the place you work, particularly among those you are working for,” she said. “You have more of a proclivity to believe you can do it, too. … So, then, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy — as we steadily bring more women talent to the bank’s top levels, it becomes encouragement for others.”

Dianne Grenz, senior executive vice president and chief consumer banking officer at Valley National Bank, knows all about industries that lean male — she worked for the parent company of the publisher of Marvel Comics.
“I’ve really always been in a man’s world throughout my career,” she said. “I’m just excited that I’ve had these opportunities and I’ve been able to grow despite that.”
Grenz wouldn’t in her modesty say that many of those opportunities are ones she’s taken for herself — like when she pitched the development of a shareholder relations department at Valley National Bank.
As the first woman in the bank’s 90-year history to be selected for the high-level role she’s in now, she realizes she’s become a role model for other women in the bank.
“When I act as a mentor, I try to make sure (other women in the bank) are strong enough to stand up for themselves in various capacities and to volunteer,” she said. “In any business, you have to have strong convictions.”

A current challenge is that a significant majority of present bank leadership teams were formed decades ago.

Frank Sorrentino, CEO and president of ConnectOne Bank, spoke to that:

“Twenty years ago, there wasn’t the same push as today for women to enter the industry — and the biggest impediment now is that no one is stepping out of the way. When you consider the average age of CEOs at banks across the country, it’s pretty far up there. What that tells me is that a lot of these individuals have been with their institutions for a very long time.”

The good news: There’s an almost industrywide effort that’s underway to groom the next generation of leaders — a younger, more diverse pool of talent.

Elaine Rizzo, senior vice president for human resources at Investors Bank, described such programs within the Short Hills-based bank that are paired with talent assessment initiatives that allow leaders to identify and develop people to potentially fill C-suite seats.

Kevin Cummings, CEO and president at Investors Bank, said diversity is a problem that should be on everyone’s radar.

“It behooves us to not be the stodgy old bankers, to be more progressive and actually address our marketplace, (given that) we’re one of the most diverse states in the country,” he said.

E-mail to: brettj@njbiz.com

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Brett Johnson

Brett Johnson

Brett Johnson covers a wide array of sectors as a general assignment reporter. Before joining NJBIZ in 2014, he lived on the West Coast and wrote for a newspaper in Davis, Calif. You can contact him at brettj@njbiz.com or @ReporterBrett on Twitter.

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