In 1972, Linda R. was a summer intern at National City Bank. A year away from receiving her applied science degree from Miami University, she was part of the wave of women who transformed the American workforce within the next 15 years, from 38 to 47 percent female.
Her technical education set her apart — at the time, 80 percent of female workers were secretaries, bookkeepers, or elementary school teachers. That summer, Linda joined a mostly-male project team; all her supervisors were male.
One morning she went into the team meeting room, and there, on the wall, was a picture of a scantily clad woman with whom she shared a passing resemblance. The woman’s face was circled in black magic marker; “Another first for Linda!” was written, in her supervisor’s handwriting.
By the mid-90s, everything had changed, says Meredith S., who began her career in 1978 as a clerk/typist at Society Bank (now Key Bank). The overt sexism had gone the way of other ’70s artifacts: the leisurely lunches, the Christmas parties at the Sheraton, the Union Club’s back-door entrance for women.
But that doesn’t mean women and men are treated equally in the world of banking.
Interviews with women in Cleveland banks and financial offices make it clear that the banking culture today is still overwhelmingly male-driven.
Key Bank CEO Beth Mooney – often named as one of the most powerful people in the Cleveland business world — is among the 12 percent of female bank CEOs nationwide.
Here are a few of their stories:
At the start of her career, Meredith — who received her bachelor’s degree and Master’s of Business Administration, and ultimately advanced to the position of a bank vice president — remembers a workplace more “Mad Men” than #MeToo. Mid to upper management was almost exclusively male, and protections of Human Resource departments had yet to be established. She recalls mid-level managers openly rating the attractiveness of secretaries’ legs; off-color and suggestive birthday cards from bosses to subordinates; and open ruminations about a divorced woman’s sexual life.
The change may have been due to a heightened awareness, or the influx of more women in the workplace, but Supreme Court decisions and legislative settlements didn’t hurt. In 1986, the Supreme Court case Meritor Savings Bank v. Vincent established that it only took an abusive work environment to prove sexual discrimination, and, seven year later, it was decided in Harris v. Forklift that harassment could be proven without any physical or psychological injury. Large settlements followed, with $
34 million awarded to female workers at Mitsubishi Motor, and $150 million at Smith Barney.
The weakening of the economy, which resulted in bank mergers and downsizing, and the increasing use of technology, which enabled analytical tracking of employee performance and production, added to a cleansing and depersonalization. In today’s work environment, production numbers loom supreme; lunches are eaten in cubicles; and business is more like … business.
“Today,” says Meredith, now an independent consultant for financial services, “people are very wary of office conversations that even touch on the personal.”
A 2016 Harvard Business Review article noted, “although overt sexism in financial firms has been stamped out, unconscious bias and gender expectations have not.”
The quote refers to the seeming inability of women to reach banking’s highest executive levels. Only slightly more than a quarter of banks have women in the top five executive positions. A LeanIn/McKinsey & Co. survey indicated that men were still 15 percent more likely to be promoted — and that percentage rises with job level.
In a March issue of American Banker, Julieann Thurlow, president and CEO of Reading Cooperative Bank commented, “When you look into these crowds of bankers, everyone does look alike.” The result, she states, is a reluctance of women to speak out when they do not see themselves reflected in the power dynamic.
Courtney K., an officer at Key Bank. Having worked at several Cleveland banks over the course of her career, said she feels a different confidence with her current employer of KeyBank, led by Beth Mooney.
“If someone calls me sweetie or honey, I may not like it, but I can deal with it,” she said. “I don’t know. I just feel there’s an equal playing field here. I guess it might start at the top.
Sara, a Cleveland bank loan officer/underwriter who started her career in the early 2000s, says this: “I’ll just leave it here — every underwriter I work with is female; every manager, male.”
She also gives a present-day example of a male manager whose comments to a female officer in a subordinate position could be taken straight from the ’70s playbook — except now they’re confined to the privacy of his office.
From “Clean up the kitchen before you go,” to his relaying particulars of a dream in which she played an uncomfortable part, it begs the question … Why doesn’t the woman go to Human Resources?
With that, Sara expresses a wariness, shared by each of the women interviewed, of handing off “problems” to HR.
As the #MeToo movement empowers/encourages women to speak up, the risk is always tempered by personal economics. Today, 40 percent of working women provide the sole economic support for children under the age of 18 — and married women contribute a critical half to most family incomes. Battles are chosen carefully.
“Women can’t take the risk it won’t backfire,” she explains. “It’s just safer to suffer in silence.”
Meredith S. puts it more bluntly. “Who pays HR salaries?” she asks. “Management. So, who do you think they’ll believe?”