Women's banks learn to assume expanded roles in their communities

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

On June 15, 1946, three women were elevated to executive positions at a bank in Pennsylvania. These were the first three female executives at the bank in its 134 years of existence.

At that time William Fulton Kurtz, president of the Pennsylvania Company for Insurances on Lives and Granting Annuities, announced, "There is no reason why women should not be elevated to whatever positions of trust and responsibility in a bank that their experience and ability qualify them to fill."

In 1980, 34 years later and after 34 more years of equal-rights battles, women not only hold key positions on bank boards, they also run their own banks.

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Women's banks were originated to help those whose needs are not met by conventional banks.

There are eight women's banks in various areas of the US. The basic argument for these special banks is that because women are newer in the financial world and therefore less experienced, they need special attention. Organizers hoped that through educational seminars conducted by the banks, women would achieve enough economic knowledge to cope with increased financial responsibilities.

When the First Women's Bank of New York swung open its doors in 1975 to a mostly female clientele, many discriminatory practices still existed. For example, at that time women taking out loans were considered high risks if they had children. A woman with children could not hold down a paying position, bankers maintained.

Often husbands had to cosign loans women were taking out. However, wives were rarely required to cosign a husband's loan.

The women's banks planned to give their customers equal time and consideration. Women weren't automatically written off as risky; nor were they automatically granted a loan because of their sex. No special promises were given to women -- except a fair hearing, which some male-centered banks didn't offer. In other words, conventional banking practices are followed with no special loans or breaks given to female customers.

But now, due to federal legislation, all discriminatory measures have been outlawed and women have equal rights at all banks.

But, says Thomas Nachod, president of the Connecticut Women's Bank, the banks are still viable. "Many women do not have an adequate financial education," he explains. "While we don't neglect our other customers, we are conscious of the needs of our female clientele and provide counseling and seminars to get them more financially attuned. But we are a bank first and we must make money."

Anne Bryant, educational director for the National Association of Bank Women Inc. (NABW), says that the need for women's banks is not purely educational. "The fact that legislation has been passed giving women equal banking rights does not mean that this fairness is being implemented. Saying women are not still discriminated against would be like saying there is no racial discrimination because of the Civil Rights Act."

Eve R. Grover, president of the First Women's Bank of Maryland, agrees: "I've been in banking for 35 years. Most banks are organized by and for men -- they are male oriented and coordinated. Women's banks are by and for women, just like farmer's banks were for farmers. We highlight the special needs of women."

There are still some chauvinists out there, admits Mr. Nachod. "I've had people (mostly men) say to me, "Change the name of your bank and we'll bank with you.' But how much money do they represent? I couldn't put a number on how many people don't bank with us because the word 'women' is in our title."

The Greenwich, Conn., bank is a community bank "first and foremost," stresses Mr. Nachod. "We do not deal only with boutiques and hairdressers. We have our share of car dealerships and furniture stores."

California Coastal Bank in San Diego, Calif., changed its name from the Women's Bank in late 1978. This was the first women's bank to "go neutral."

Between 1976 and 1978 the Women's Bank suffered heavy losses. Eventually its female president resigned and was replaced by chairman Veryl Mortenson. Experience, says the chairman, has taught California Coastal that serving the women's market alone does not bring profitability; services must be extended to every area of the community.

NABW's Anne Bryant stresses that the women's banks are consumer oriented. The banks are surviving in a competitive marketplace because they provide special service.

The first Women's Bank of Maryland has conducted a survey of its customers, says Ms. Grover, and 50 percent of the customers are males. Ms. Grover speculates that this is because her bank offers better service for all, not just for women.

And the banks are not just surviving, they're "doing quite well," says Ms. Grover. The Rockville, Md., bank has exceeded its 1980 projections so far by $1 million. "And these are pretty adverse economic conditions to be making a profit under," says Ms. Grover. But, she explains, most banks are doing surprisingly well considering 1980's so far shaky economic record.

Anne Bryant can't emphasize enough how well the women's banks in Washington and Denver are doing. One bank in Richmond, Md., has even opened a branch. "You don't open a branch if you're not doing well," she says.

Also, the Greenwich bank has been open for three years and reports assets between $10 million and $11 million.Profits have been rising annually.

But the banks are still small community banks with a lot of growing to do. But gradually, the stereotypes of a women's bank are dissolving. And Mr. Nachod , as a man running a woman's bank, feels he is helping: "It just shows that women's banks are not just for women. As a man, I hope I can break down some of the barriers that prevent men from banking here. . . . Some people do kid me about it though."

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