Women find niche leading credit unions: Unique nature of those financial institutions may explain why females thrive there

Karla Salisbury started her career at a savings and loan that was later purchased by an out-of-state bank. After a few years, she foresaw that she might have to relocate to advance in the company, “and that was not part of my plan,” Salisbury said.

So she did some research to see where her best opportunities might be. One thing she investigated was how many women there were in upper management in banks vs. credit unions. She found the top bankers in Indianapolis at that time-the late 1990s-were almost all male.

“I felt there were better opportunities for females to advance in the credit union industry than in the banking industry,” said Salisbury, 40. So she joined Kemba Indianapolis Credit Union as vice president of marketing and has since worked her way up to president and CEO.

Statistics on the national and local levels support Salisbury’s findings. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in 2002 (the most recent year for which numbers are available), 49 percent of officials and managers at commercial banks were women, while 58 percent of officials and managers at credit unions were women.

According to IBJ’s most recent list of the largest area banks and thrifts, 8 percent had a female head of local operations, while the most recent list of the largest area credit unions found 48 percent had a female head of local operations.

So why are there more women running credit unions than banks?

We asked a number of people in the credit union industry that question. But first, it’s important to understand the basic differences between credit unions and banks.

Credit unions are not-for-profit financial institutions owned and controlled by the people-members-who use their services. Banks are for-profit financial institutions that are owned by shareholders. Credit union profits go back to the members, while bank profits go to the shareholders. Credit unions pay no federal taxes; banks do.

In comparing the local financial institutions identified by the IBJ lists, it’s worth noting that all but two of the banks have local deposits of more than $100 million, while only five of the credit unions do.

So on the question of why there are more women running credit unions, one explanation is some women executives find credit unions more attractive because they’re smaller and the services they offer are bettersuited to using women’s skills.

Laura Feeney, the locally based regional manager for South Bend-based Teachers Credit Union, started her career as a bank teller when she was in college. She moved up in the banking industry and eventually relocated to Cincinnati.

But as the bank she worked for grew, Feeney, 43, decided she wanted to slow down a bit. “The time commitment they expected was more than I was willing to give, because I had a son and I wanted to come back to Indianapolis,” she said.

So Feeney left the bank and joined Teach- ers four years ago.

“Credit unions are not heavily into big commercial lending or big trust accounts; they were founded to help consumers,” Feeney said. And since credit unions focus on providing retail financial services, the variety of tasks performed there-sales, marketing, community service-are more likely to attract women.

Smaller credit unions are relationship-oriented, which makes them well-suited to female personalities, said Kemba’s Salisbury. And the multi-tasking involved in running a small financial institution-“We have to wear a lot of hats,” Salisbury said-is natural for women who often have many things to juggle as moms and heads of households.

Ann Garmon, CEO of Drover Street Federal Credit Union in Indianapolis, started with Drover as a loan officer when she was still in college and worked her way up.

Credit unions have more of a family atmosphere than banks, said Garmon, who declined to give her age. “I think women have more sensitivity toward family matters and we fit in that niche more so than men. The nature of the business leans more toward a nurturing environment.”

Many women managers grew up in credit unions, said Pat Keefe, vice president of communications and media outreach for the Credit Union National Association based in Washington, D.C., and Madison, Wis.

“When credit unions were small-maybe a few hundred [members]-the board would look around and say, ‘Who can run this thing?'” Keefe said. “They would find a bookkeeper, maybe within the company [that launched the credit union for its employees] or the credit union, and say, ‘You seem to be well-situated-you know the books, you understand the credit union-so why don’t you run this?’ Some of them were men but, by and large, a lot of them were women, and they turned out to be extraordinary at running credit unions.”

But one local credit union chief said she doesn’t know why there are more women running credit unions than banks. “I know when you get up to the large credit unions, there are more men managers, and I don’t have an answer for that, either,” said Terri Wildrick, president of IPALCO Credit Union.

Wildrick, 46, started as a teller and bookkeeper with the Evansville Firefighters Credit Union in 1982 and has worked for both large and small credit unions. “A lot of times, credit unions promote from within, more so than in banking,” she said.

The democratic nature of credit unions provides another possible explanation for why women seem to advance more rapidly there than at banks. As Indiana Credit Union League President John McKenzie said: “… each credit union’s board, which is elected by the membership, determines who is the best person to lead their credit union as its CEO.”

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