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Women In Banking: Reflections from the top

These bank leaders no longer think of themselves as “women bankers,” a sign of changed times. Yet challenges remain—work/home balance and compensation among them 

Women In Banking: Reflections from the top

Carla Breunig has never been much of an Oprah Winfrey fan. But a while back, she happened to be home on a workday. Coincidentally, Winfrey’s theme of the day was working moms, and how Breunig’s generation was the first to put their jobs ahead of their families. Breunig began to bristle, feeling Winfrey’s premise was one-sided.

Roundtable participants

Laurie Finney Beard, President and CEO, Founders Bank & Trust, $430 million-assets, Grand Rapids, Mich.

Stacey Bentley, Market President, Community National Bank, $230 million-assets, Waterloo, Iowa

Carla Breunig, President and CEO, Layton State Bank, $145 million-assets, New Berlin, Wis.

Susan Eno, President and CEO, Citizens National Bank, $250 million-assets, Cheboygan, Mich.

Jane Haskin, President and CEO, First Bethany Bank & Trust, $180 million-assets, Bethany, Okla.

Susan Still, President and CEO, HomeTown Bank, $365 million-assets
Roanoke, Va.

Then she heard her younger daughter—she has two, and a son—speaking on the phone downstairs to her older sister, away at college. “Did you see what Oprah said about Mom?” she heard the girl say. “I didn’t know I was supposed to be so unhappy and resentful. But now I know.”

With the thought in her head, “My girls are talking about me,” she went downstairs only to hear her daughter ask her sister to come home, because she needed somebody to be with her.

“She was laughing—she thought this was all hilarious,” says Breunig, whose chain was clearly being pulled. But Breunig, who is president and CEO of Layton State Bank, New Berlin, Wis., grew serious and asked her daughter, had she ever resented the fact that Mom had a career?

Said her daughter: “I’ll be honest with you, Mom. I used to go to friends’ houses, and their moms would give us cookies and milk, and I’d think, ‘Gosh, I wish I could have my mom give me cookies and milk at home.’”

Breunig’s daughter then added:

“But in junior high school, my friends and I were talking about our mothers. And everybody was jealous of me, because you have a man’s job. Somebody actually said that—that my mom had a man’s job. And that they wished their moms would get a job and leave them alone.”

At that point, the daughter told Breunig, she realized how much she respected what her mother did.

What do a former typist, a floral arranger, a restaurant worker (Breunig), a finance major, a CPA, and an investment broker have in common? All six are women who today hold the top or a senior position in community banks, and who have all faced the ongoing challenge of maintaining a work life-home life balance as a professional woman and a mother. The six bankers, members of ABA’s Community Bankers Council, took part in a roundtable discussion ABABJ held about women’s work issues.

Firing on both cylinders

Coming up in banking, one had to work to avoid extremes, recalls Stacey Bentley, market president at Community National Bank, Waterloo, Iowa (former floral arranger). “On the one hand, you’re looking weak to some who say, ‘She’s got to go home and be with her kids because they’re sick,’” remembers Bentley, “while on the other hand, there are others who say, ‘She’s tough, and too tough, because her kids are sick at home and she’s here at the bank.’” In the end, “Sometimes your family gets more time; sometimes work gets more time.”

There are times when circumstances dictate the work-life balance for you, like it or not. Jane Haskin is now president and CEO at First Bethany (Okla.) Bank & Trust, but she began as a lender in 1979, and soon she, her husband, and her daughter faced a time when balance went out the window.

“We had horrific banking problems in Oklahoma, and reduced staff,” recalls Haskin, a CPA by training. “People were expected to work extra hours. If you wanted to keep your job, it was just something you did. You worked half-days on Saturday. And if the regulators were coming, you just put in long hours.” Haskin’s husband, a construction estimator, faced unemployment during the crisis, putting more pressure on Haskin, at times the only breadwinner.

The family made it through this rough spot. Haskin says, “I’ve asked my daughter, ‘Did you feel that? Did it bother you?’ And she said, ‘No, I just thought that was the way everybody lived.’”

Sue Eno, president and CEO at Citizens National Bank, Cheboygan, Mich., counts herself fortunate—“I think I just had it lucky”—for two reasons. First, her parents’ farm was only one-half mile from her family’s home, so her two kids spent much time with their grandparents, who were dairy farmers. Second, Eno came up on the bank’s HR side, having started as a typist, and helped maintain a culture where people pitched in when someone had a sick child or other family issue.    

“We may fight like heck at work with each other,” says Eno, “but if somebody needs something, everyone is there to help.”

Roundtable members also spoke of supportive men, in particular,  who helped make their careers more possible. “Having a supportive spouse is huge,” maintains Bentley, whose husband took the sick kids now and then.

Breunig looks back with gratitude on a past CEO, who found out she was using vacation time to work toward a degree.

He called her to his office one day and said he’d been suspecting she was doing that. He said he considered her part of the future of the bank. “Here’s the deal,” he told her. “I have a son in Chicago, who is doing the same thing because his bank won’t give him time off for school.” He told her he’d decided that wasn’t right—“Vacation time is for your family, Carla”—and he picked up the phone and told her boss to grant additional time off for studying for finals and such. “I have never forgotten that day,” says Breunig. “And I think about it with my own staff—women and men.”

These examples helped balance out others, where things were made more difficult: PTA meetings scheduled to exclude working parents, or a school principle who opposed working mothers and made things tougher on them.

Why are we singled out?

In an earlier ABABJ roundtable on women in banking, the consensus about whether banking was no longer a man’s world was: “We’re getting there, but we’re not there yet.”

Times have changed.

“I think so little of the fact that I’m female. I just think of myself as an employee,” says Susan Still, president and CEO at HomeTown Bank, Roanoke, Va. She said she’d recently attended ABA’s Women’s Leadership Forum (read coverage at http://tinyurl.com/womenleaders-bj), and was somewhat surprised to hear some of the issues being raised and attitudes being aired.

“I remember thinking, ‘Gosh, I wish we were just moving forward as men and women, and that we weren’t thinking about these issues so much anymore’,” says Still, a former accounting and finance major.

“I don’t go into meetings ever thinking that I’m a woman,” says Carla Breunig. “I sometimes think we do this to ourselves.”

“I personally think there is a glass ceiling if you believe there is,” says Sue Eno. “And if you don’t believe there is a glass ceiling, I don’t think there is one.” Eno, in fact, bridled a bit at being invited to the roundtable, initially, “because I don’t feel any different from the men in my organization.” Stacey Bentley agreed: “I wondered, why are we singled out? Why is this still something we have to talk about?”

“When do we ever get to the point when being women isn’t an issue?” asks Laurie Finney Beard, with some dismay. She is president and CEO at Founders Bank and Trust, Grand Rapids, Mich., and a former investment broker. While she can see contexts where such discussions can be productive, she felt that often the issue is belabored today.

“I’ve never experienced the glass ceiling, personally,” says Beard. “I never had anybody say, ‘You can’t do this; you can’t do that.’” She left investments to start a bank as top executive at the request of a male-dominated investor group.

“It’s a different world now,” says Breunig. “As far as the glass ceiling goes, I think every time we go through a generation, we become more and more genderless. Look at our daughters. They don’t have the same issues we did.”

Susan Still says she feels today that promotions based on merit, rather than with an eye toward gender, have become more the rule. There is less likelihood that a woman has been promoted as a token. But Jane Haskin pipes up that as she rose through the ranks, she knew that, at times, she was given opportunities as a token.

“And I took every one of them, and I made the most of it,” she says with a grin.

A feeling around that table was that things have grown better for women and men. The fact that men feel confident showing off a new baby, or at least baby pictures, at the office meant a lot to the bankers. More important: the fact that many men now feel the freedom to draw a line themselves.

“It’s acceptable now for men in the workplace, who want to be bank presidents, to say, ‘You know, I have a family and that’s an important segment of my life,’” says Haskin.

Agreeing, Laurie Beard says, “Now we’re all talking about sports, and we’re all talking about babies.”

One challenge remaining, points out Breunig, is compensation. “I don’t think women get paid as much as they should, in general. True equality will come when we see it in compensation.”

No need to be teed off

Speaking of sports, in an earlier roundtable, we asked about the role of golf in the careers of women in banking and found that there was little sense of business disadvantage even then.

Nowadays, the sport is more open to women, and banks where it’s deemed important make involvement easier for women in banking. Breunig recalls one employer where the boss sent Breunig and the other senior bank women for golf lessons, held on company time. Eno recalls the first year when women officers were invited to the annual director and officer golf outing.

She says her coworkers weren’t going to go—they didn’t play. Eno says she pointed out that those who didn’t go would be working, while the men had a good time. She was going. “But you don’t play!” her coworkers said. “I’ll figure it out,” said Eno. And she did, and the other women joined her.

“Later, I started taking lessons,” she adds today. “I wasn’t about to let the men show me up.”

The old truism about deals made on the course has long had Haskin puzzled. She plays, but says she has yet to make a deal on the golf course.

What you really do with customers on the course is learn character, says Susan Still. She no longer plays, but did for years as a lender, and found it a good way to get to know people better.

The bankers discussed earlier days in their careers when they couldn’t join some country clubs, or could only play at certain times. One banker still belongs to a club with such archaic rules.

Beard recalls how a lawsuit in the 1980s did away with such gender restrictions on club memberships. It was the mark of many restrictions falling by the wayside.

“For young women coming up today, they won’t have ever known such limits,” says Beard.

“And that’s a good thing,” points out Haskin.

“Exactly,” continues Beard. “But they need to know that it didn’t fall out of the sky. There were some women somewhere who said, ‘That’s not fair.’”

Advice from CEOs to young women in banking

We asked panelists what they would tell these new bankers:

• Get involved in a local civic organization, a public board, or nonprofit organization. Experience in leadership in outside organizations will help prepare you for company leadership.

• Don’t wait to be asked. Panelists felt too often women hang back when there are opportunities. This applies both to openings as well as volunteering for tough jobs. The persistent volunteer becomes management’s “go-to” person, and is marked for future advancement.

• Don’t be shy at annual review time. Managers can’t possibly remember all your accomplishments. If you did a great job and are proud of it, remind them.

• Be ready to tell management what you are worth. One executive says she insists that managers requesting raises be ready to show her why they think they deserve a raise. This includes comparing your salary target to what other similarly situated officers in your market make.

• Be ready to step out of your comfort zone. Look for opportunities to stretch. Executives said they don’t prosecute people for making mistakes.

“One of my managers, long ago, told me the only people not making mistakes are the ones not doing anything,” says Michigan banker Sue Eno. “So if you  are making mistakes, I know you’re working.”

Steve Cocheo

Steve Cocheo’s career in business journalism has taken him to all 50 states and nearly every corner of banking in institutions of all sizes. He is executive editor of ABA Banking Journal, digital content manager of ababj.com, and editor of ABA Bank Directors Briefing. He coordinates the popular Pass the Aspirin and First Person features and wrote the booklet series Focus On The Bank Director. He is the only journalist to have sat in on three federal banking exams, was a finalist for the Jesse H. Neal national business journalism awards, and a winner of multiple awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors.

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