Elaine Dinn, a vice-president at Chase Manhattan Bank, is leading the pack. As head of the US regional banking division, she is the only female at the bank's division-executive level.
When she started at Chase 11 years ago, fresh out of New York University Business School, Ms. Dinn put in her time as a credit-program trainee, then an account officer with the corporate side of the bank. Now she's responsible for penetrating the ''middle market'' - companies with sales between $25 million and
Ms. Dinn's case is unusual for two reasons: First, not many women have scaled that high in the banking industry. And second, she hasn't felt any discrimination.
''I really don't consider myself a woman when I'm at work. I don't get any unusual vibrations, nor do I feel I have to work harder to prove myself. I work hard because I like to. Frankly this woman's thing is a nonissue for me.''
Martha Simpson, a director of First Bank of Colorado Springs and former president of Citizen's National Bank in the same city, disagrees. ''A woman has a hard time running a bank. She can't mix with the boys,'' she says.
Contrary to banking industry claims, Ms. Simpson says that ''banks, if anything, are more conservative in promoting women'' than companies in other industries. ''Men jump right in as executive officers, while women operate the nuts and bolts,'' she says. ''In part, it's their own fault. Women just have not been forceful enough in saying they want decisionmaking authority.''
In terms of promoting women, statistics about the banking industry sparkle. In the 150 largest banks, which employ half of the nation's bankers, women occupy 39.5 percent of the managerial slots, close to a threefold increase since 1970, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In the same period, their share of the total banking workforce has grown only 5 percent, to 67.6 percent.
Scraping away the statistical tinsel reveals a more lackluster picture. The bulk of female managers occupy middle-management positions; few are actually executives. According to the American Bankers Association, only 52 women serve as bank presidents, out of 14,500 commercial US banks.
''Banking has always been a female-intensive industry,'' observes Barbara Harrelson of the American Bankers Association. ''But they were secretaries, tellers, and clerks. Now they're in middle management.''
In part, women don't occupy more top-level spots because of their academic background. The enrollment of women in business schools, historically the breeding ground for the banking profession, is about 30 percent. At Harvard Business School, for example, 26 percent of the class of '83 is female.
In an attempt to straighten out this situation, banks have created flexible training programs that admit recent college graduates.
''When we stopped restricting our lending-training program to just MBAs,'' says Owen Johnson, vice-president of personnel at Continental Illinois National Bank, ''we saw an instantaneous change. We went from 15 percent women in 1974 to about 35 percent women the next year.'' Now, he estimates, half the people in the program are women.
Those figures are not yet reflected in the bank's executive ranks. Of those earning over $30,000 a year, only 21 percent are female.
Increasingly banks appeal to women who want not only to move ahead in their careers, but also to fill in some gaps in their education. At First Interstate National Bank of California, for example, a trainee in the two-year Certificate in Banking Management program receives college credit from UCLA for taking bank management courses. And women make up 66 percent of the bank's in-house credit and operations training programs.
''The training program is a step into the professional ranks,'' says Barbara Hennigar, senior vice-president at First Interstate. ''As women realize they will have a career for the rest of their lives, they are taking advantage of the programs.''
Bank training programs are not the only way to the top. Ms. Hennigar never received a college degree, nor did she go through the training program. She started with First Interstate 23 years ago as a proof operator, and she worked her way up. Now she oversees 543 people in three separate areas: international operations, electronic funds transfer for corporations, and securities services. Over $60 billion falls under her direction every day.
Ms. Hennigar attributes her success at First Interstate to being ''on the right side of the bank,'' namely, in operations. Operations, as opposed to credit, involves more of the mechanics of banking.
Ms. Hennigar says it was easier for women to come up through the ranks in the operations side in the past, adding that those without the academic credentials to get into the credit-training program could become supervisors, then managers, on the operations side. And while there are many women in the credit side today, the opportunity for women is probably still greater in operations, she adds.
Women will pop up as executives of banks, she says, when they are ready for it. ''An individual must be willing to fill the manager's shoes and accept decisionmaking responsibility. In the past, more men than women have viewed themselves as able to take that responsibility.''
Susan Bergan, after 18 years with Citibank, is now vice-president of the division that trades and places financial paper overseas, such as syndicated loans and notes. Ms. Bergan has seen positive shifts in the industry's attitude toward women since she joined Citibank.
''When they first wanted to give me signing powers, they took me out for a drink and asked me what my plans were for having children. At the time, it seemed logical,'' she laughs.
''But that wouldn't happen today,'' she adds. ''Now it doesn't matter if you're a man or a woman in this organization.''