Cheryl Paller worries that she has two strikes against her that could preclude an ascent to the upper echelons of banking: She's female and she's unconventional.
It's not that Paller hasn't had successes as a banker. She has risen to the rank of vice president at four financial institutions, including her present employer, Bank of America.
But the top spots in banking are still elusive to women. A report released in the 1990s by the magazine United States Banker showed that of 1,676 top American banking officers, only 47 were women.
The financial services community at large doesn't appear much better.
Today "there are still no women chairmen of Wall Street firms and no other [brokerage houses] of my size run by women," said Muriel Siebert, chief executive of Muriel Siebert & Co., a national discount brokerage firm. "This really saddens me, and that's an understatement."
Gender issue aside, Paller also finds herself under surveillance by the banking fashion police. Colleagues have criticized her long, curly hair, urging her to shear her locks and adopt a more "corporate look." They also have recommended that she dress more "bankish."
But Paller, a 44-year-old Brentwood resident, declines such advice, declaring that she'll keep her own style, even if this gains her a reputation as the Erin Brockovich of banking.
In more serious moments, Paller wonders whether her goal to become a top-level financial services executive is unrealistic. Though she has won accolades for her financial and marketing achievements over the last decade and has an MBA, she fears that the industry's most prestigious positions will forever remain closed to her.
For help with this predicament, Paller contacted David Rottman, a New York City career counselor who also is head of Chase Manhattan's career services division.
Paller told Rottman that in March of 1999, she was laid off from a $130,000-a-year senior vice president position at a local lending institution and had to search for nearly a year before landing a new job as vice president of private banking with Bank of America in Los Angeles. As financial services companies go, Bank of America has a better-than-average reputation for promoting women, industry insiders say.
Rottman administered to Paller a series of assessment tests, including the Campbell Interest and Skill Survey, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Strong Interest Inventory, so that he could learn more about her abilities and interests and determine whether she was well-suited to her present vocation.
Paller scored very high in influencing, organizing and straightforwardness--all important traits for bankers. But she also landed in the top percentiles for creativity, designing and performing. Her profile showed her to be intelligent, independent and dynamic, but not comfortable with traditional restraints and corporate politics. Surprisingly, Rottman said, the best vocational match for Paller, according to the tests, was fashion design.
"You have a right to be angry with the world of banking for not having made a place for someone like you," Rottman said. "However, the anger isn't going to get you anywhere.
"The upshot of this is, knowing banking as I do, a female with your profile will run into problems with males who aren't secure in themselves. You're going to have to find a new pattern for how, as a woman, you can be successful in this industry."
Paller said she'd like to give it her best shot. She added she enjoys her new job at Bank of America, soliciting investment accounts of high-net-worth individuals.
Here is some advice from Rottman and other experts for Paller to consider:
Paller should immediately begin developing strategic alliances with colleagues at Bank of America and influential people in the community to solidify her present position, said consultant Larraine Segil of the Lared Group in Century City.
A network of trusted supporters can advise her about the unspoken rules of her industry and corporation, recommend her for promotions and encourage others to hold her in high regard, said Carol Gallagher, author of "Going to the Top: A Road Map for Success from America's Leading Women Executives" (Viking, 2000).
She also should try to cultivate mentors among higher-ups at her firm, said Lynn Pike, regional president of Wells Fargo & Co. in Los Angeles.
"All of the executive women I studied were exceptionally good at forming strong professional relationships at all levels, inside and outside their organizations," Gallagher said.
Although Paller takes pride in her untraditional style, she may want to try to strike more of a balance between expressing her individuality and conforming to banking traditions, if she's serious about advancing in the banking ranks, according to banking executives.
She'll have to develop a tough hide too, said Annette Merz, president of Fidelity & Deposit Cos.' financial services division in Baltimore. For during the ascent, scrutiny and criticism escalate.