By Richard Newman/The Record
October 30, 2011
When Michelle Y. Lee, Wells Fargo’s regional president for retail and business banking in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, was growing up in Newark, she wanted to be an opera singer. She went to the Boston Conservatory of Music and graduated in the early 1980s with a degree in Music and Applied Voice.
Then Lee got what was supposed to be a temporary job as a teller at First National State Bank in Newark. She never left banking, where she rose quickly through the ranks, survived more than half a dozen mergers and oversees 460 branches, nine business banking teams and 4,800 employees.
“I needed a job but I had no intention of being here 28 years later,” said Lee, one of 32 Wells Fargo executives on a Top Women in Banking team recognized recently by the trade publication American Banker.
Lee and her executive women teammates — including Lucia DiNapoli Gibbons, northern New Jersey regional president, and Brenda Ross-Dulan, regional president for southern New Jersey — are proof that bank management is not as much of a man’s world as it was a few decades ago.
Yet for many reasons, women remain underrepresented at the very top in banking. Even at Wells Fargo, with an acclaimed diversity program, only four women serve on a 14-member board of directors. Only one of the company’s highest-paid managers — Carrie Tolstedt, senior executive vice president of community banking — is a woman.
“There is a long way to go, but diversity is something our company is focused on,” Lee said.
According to research published in June by Catalyst Inc., a New York City-based non-profit think tank focused on expanding business opportunities for women, more than 55 percent of the workforce at U.S. financial companies in the Fortune 500 are women. But fewer than 17 percent of the board members and executive officers are women. And fewer than 3 percent of the chief executive officers at those companies are women.
Rutgers University’s Institute for Women’s Leadership did research this year on 118 banks that belong to the New Jersey Bankers Association and found only five had female CEOs and only seven had women as chief operating officers. In an analysis that included 79 of those banks, Rutgers found 71 women and 650 men serving on the boards and nearly a quarter of the banks had all-male boards.
‘Progress so very slow’
Similarly, an analysis by The Record of proxy filings from the 10 publicly traded regional and community banks based in North Jersey found only about 11 percent of the board members and 6 percent of the top earners were women.
Lisa Hetfield, associate director and director of development for the Institute for Women’s Leadership, said women have made great strides toward workplace equality and now comprise a majority of middle managers across all industries.
“There is progress broadly,” she said. “But the question is: Why is the progress so very slow for women to get to the top levels of executive leadership and decision-making?”
The usual answer, that they’d rather stay home with the kids than command a conference room, is insufficient.
“Women continue to have a disproportionate responsibility for family life, whether it’s elder care or child care, but the research points to more than that,” Hetfield said.
Hetfield said studies of the finance sector show women lack access to informal networks where men make connections leading to promotion and women role models in the executive suites are still in short supply. Also, she said research has shown that women are often evaluated based on their performance while men are graded on potential. “So we are more likely to give a rising male leader the benefit of the doubt than we are a rising woman leader with the same experience,” she said. “Unconsciously we are thinking about leadership in a way that favors men.”
“Certain assumptions make women seem good for some positions and not others,” she said. “It’s important to break down those assumptions and look more objectively at how we evaluate potential,” she said.
Women in high places
Two of the 10 banks examined by The Record, 100-year-old Oritani Financial Corp. and Kearny Financial Corp., had no women on their boards and none among their top five earners.
Oritani CEO Kevin Lynch is quick to point out that the company does have women senior vice presidents in charge of the bank’s human resources and regulatory compliance departments and “quite a few” in middle management.
“We certainly don’t discriminate. We have a very small, sixmember board and we have never been presented with an opportunity to have a lady on the board,” he said.
Eight of the 10 banks The Record looked at had no women among their top five earners. Clifton Savings Bancorp had one among its top five earners. Midland Park-based Stewardship Financial Corp., holding company for Atlantic Stewardship Bank, had two.
Paul Van Ostenbridge, CEO at Stewardship Financial, said that of the bank’s 155 full-time employees 101, or 65 percent, and about half of the managers are women.
“It’s critical from our perspective to have senior-level representation that reflects the makeup of the bank,” Van Ostenbridge said. The bank did not set out to hire women for those senior executive spots.
An example for others
“We were looking for the most qualified individuals,” he said.
Lakeland Bancorp, based in Oak Ridge, recently elevated Mary Ann Deacon, secretary and treasurer of Deacon Homes in Sparta, to chairwoman from vice chairwoman after 16 years on the board.
Being elected chairwoman was “probably one of the greatest honors of my life,” she said.
Two of the bank’s founding fathers had recruited her in 1995 to replace a retiring board member, and were seeking “a woman’s perspective,” Deacon said. “They are smart businessmen and they knew they needed smart businesswomen as well,” she said.
“In banking, the support staff, your tellers, your platform people, your vice presidents have been women for many, many years. The bank’s founders knew they had good staff and they wanted to bring that type of influence onto the board,” she said.
Deacon said she has led five monthly board meetings so far.
“I see a new enthusiasm among the bank’s women staff members. They see that it can happen and they think, ‘I can make it to the top as well.’ ”