Pub. 3 2021 Issue 2

Women in Banking Be Bold Be Driven& Ask the Questions

Women in Banking: Be Bold, Be Driven, and Ask the Questions

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If you search ‘history of women in banking’ online, you will find many interesting facts, including:

  • It wasn’t until 1851 that a woman could maintain control of her own money and wasn’t considered the property of her husband.
  • In 1875, Louise M. Weiser was named the first woman president of an American bank when she inherited the role at the Winneshiek County Bank in Decorah, IA, following the death of her husband. The first woman to charter a bank and become its president was Maggie Lena Walker in 1902.
  • It was in the 1960s when a woman could finally open a bank account under her own name.

According to a 2019 Deloitte study, the majority of employees in the financial industry are female. Yet, the same study showed only 21.9% of women held leadership roles.

With a projection for that number to rise to 31% by 2030, we wanted to understand how PACB could support that growth. We talked with several PACB member female leaders for their view on what women currently working in the community banking industry can do to rise to the C-suite.

Lori Cestra, the first female Chairperson of PACB and EVP/Chief Operating Officer of Enterprise Bank in Pittsburgh, shared her thoughts on her journey to her current positions.

“I believe the way to leadership comes from within. Each woman has to take personal responsibility for her path forward, to find the opportunities, and to make known to those around you what you want to have happen next.”

Cestra shared how early in her career, when she wanted to become a commercial lender, she physically sat in the office of the top lender at Enterprise Bank and watched him do his work. She studied his thought process on structuring a loan and how he presented it to a client. “With limited budgets at this new bank, I didn’t wait for someone to say ‘take a class.’ I used the available resources to learn what I needed to know to get where I wanted to be.”

Elisa Varella, Assistant VP and BSA Officer at Hyperion Bank in Philadelphia, told us, “I had a powerful will to want to succeed. Every time I learned one thing, I found I needed – and wanted – to learn the next thing. A strong work ethic and telling others I was interested in that job is what allowed me to move into leadership positions.”

None of the women we spoke to felt there had been huge obstacles for them in the rise to their positions. They experienced what they viewed as normal challenges of the workplace.

Hatboro Federal Savings President and CEO, Linda Roehner said when she started in banking in the late 1970s that women were not in leadership positions. “It was the culture of the time, but we have come a long way in gaining respect within our industry and from our peers.”

“Being authentic in my communication style was key for me,” shares Roehner who started at Hatboro Federal as a teller. “I never tried to emulate my male counterparts. I worked hard, took every opportunity to learn, and was always straightforward. This earned me the trust of the board, peers, employees, community and the industry at large.”

Focus, drive, and being willing to work hard and learn are the common thread among these banking leaders.

“The banking industry has so many tools from which you can learn,” shares Cheryl Howard, Regional President – Capital Region, for LINKBANK in Camp Hill. “This is a great industry for women to create their own destiny. Always stay open to opportunities – even if it isn’t the right fit for the long-term, every experience will help you get to where you want to go.”

Each woman spoke about the help they receive not only from mentors within the industry but from the network of people – family and the women in their community – who go out of their way to support them. Their jobs not only include what they do in the office but in managing their families as well. “So many women have exhibited selfless behavior in helping me with my daughters,” shares Cestra. “They say it takes a village to raise children – and it does. Allow yourself to be open to saying yes to offers for help.”

Howard adds, “Keep your circle strong and positive – those are the people who will carry you far.”

Mentors played a significant role in each woman’s rise up the ladder. They sought out the leaders – both women and men – who would be open to their ideas and support them in their goals. As they now have the opportunity to be the mentor, they have advice for both mentors and mentees.

Varella advises mentors to ‘listen well’ and appreciate a different approach. She attributes those qualities to her mentor and her rise to a leadership position. To those working in the industry, she recommends, ‘Listen to the voice within, tell others what you want, and don’t let anything or anyone discourage you.”

Cheryl Howard believes in the bench strength of the current young women in the workplace. “There are strong, intelligent women waiting to learn from us. Mentors should invest their time, sharing knowledge, and passing lessons on to this next generation. Whether at work, with nonprofits in your community, or in your personal circles – share your experiences and stories. Giving a lift to those who come next will provide continuity and longevity to the work you have done.”

Linda Roehner adds, “Our banks have a responsibility to recognize the worth of people – all people – working in the industry. We must diversify our boards, our staff, and our industry to gain better perspectives and to provide for the communities in which we work.”

To the women looking to be the next leaders, Cestra advises, “Don’t be afraid to take yourself outside of your comfort zone and take your future into your hands. Be bold, be driven.” To those who mentor, she urges, “Create an environment which encourages questions. Teach to the ‘why.’ Look for the women who ask the questions, who want to know the why. When people understand the why behind their work – they are motivated to be successful.”

PACB applauds all of the women in Community Banking. We will continue to support your careers through our education and mentoring programs. We thank you for keeping our industry strong and vital to the communities we serve.

Diane M. Sweeney is a professional copywriter and content strategist. At her desk, overlooking Beaver Creek in Chester County, PA she writes articles and web content to inform, persuade, and entertain. Her work can be found at

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