The Gender Factor

Article excerpt

As with race, it's difficult to discuss matters of gender objectively. Both subjects tend to stir emotions and polarize opinions.

We've attempted in our cover story this month to present a dispassionate view of an important evolution: the increased presence of women among the ranks of senior bank officers. The statistics alone don't point to any overwhelming recent change. From a pool of about 10,000 banks, a mere handful of CEOs are women. Yet the numbers are increasing at the highest levels--though gradually. In the middle management ranks, the numbers have jumped much more dramatically, as the article notes.

Where will the trend go from here? Some may wonder if the recantation of Norma McCorvey ("Jane Roe" of Roe v. Wade) and the ascendance of conservatism will prompt tens of thousands of women now in managerial roles to trade in their pumps for aprons.

The mores of this country have become so capricious that anything is possible. But the trend of women in the workplace is not solely a cultural phenomenon. It's also partly the result of economics. Our sense is that the trend will continue, so that by 2000, there will be more women who are bank CEOs than now--perhaps many more.

A relevant question is, "So what?" Why is a person's gender, race, or ethnic background a significant factor? As it relates to ability and performance in a business environment, it isn't. But the fact is that any time the norm changes, that change is noteworthy. And in regard to women in banking, the norm is changing.

The seven women we profiled are only a sampling of a larger number. Four of them are CEOs of community banks, two are presidents with units of very large banks, and the other is a senior vice-president with a large bank. Each of them offers a compelling story of how they rose to their current position. Each story, furthermore, is quite different.

As our cover headline suggests, the women were asked if they had encountered a gender barrier--the so-called glass ceiling, that much-discussed invisible barrier to promotion beyond a certain level. None had experienced such a barrier themselves, but each of the seven knew someone who had, and each said they had encountered some gender-related challenge. Barbara Ralston, of First Interstate Bank of Arizona, for example, told us she was aware that at various stages in her career she was the "token" woman.

Whereas some people might take offense, understandably, at being considered a token, Ralston treated it as an opportunity. …