For years, women have gotten a foot in the door to the finance industry by becoming bank tellers. Now that path is disappearing.

The number of tellers — a job in which four out of five positions are held by women — has dropped more than 20% in the U.S. and Canada in the past decade as transactions move from branches to mobile phones. The figure, already projected before the pandemic to fall further over the next 10 years, may decline even faster after COVID-19 lockdowns accelerated the adoption of digital banking.

Technological advances are eliminating the need for bank tellers, threatening an entry point for women into the male-dominated industry that has sought to promote more females to leadership roles. While the climb remains steep, some financial companies have managed to improve the gender balance in their executive ranks.

“I wouldn’t have been a banker without it,” said former Wells Fargo & Co. Chair Betsy Duke, who started as a teller. “I wouldn’t have had the career that I had.”

Women hold 51% of entry-level positions and 38% of senior-management jobs in the banking and consumer-finance industry in the U.S., according to a report last year from McKinsey & Co. Both figures are higher than the average across industries, according to the study. The picture is similar in Canada.

The figures are far less encouraging at the highest levels. Only one of the 18 banks in the S&P 500 Index has a female chief executive officer.

“When you already have a workforce that has a lot of women, there are more opportunities for women’s leadership,” said Sarah Kaplan, a professor at the University of Toronto and the director of the Institute for Gender and the Economy.

The picture has improved somewhat over the past year, with Jane Fraser being named head of Citigroup Inc. in September, and Rania Llewellyn taking the top job at Laurentian Bank of Canada a month later, making her the first female CEO of a publicly traded Canadian bank.

The teller position has been the springboard for some of the highest-ranking women in North American banking. Llewellyn of Laurentian Bank, Bank of the West Chief Executive Officer Nandita Bakhshi, Toronto-Dominion Canadian personal-banking head Teri Currie and Duke all started as tellers.

Duke said the movement of women into banking’s highest ranks is happening much slower than she expected, but she’s optimistic about the industry’s future, in part because banks have diversified their boards.

‘Bench strength’

“When you look at the bench strength in all of the banking world, the next generation of CEOs will include a number of outstanding women,” Duke said.

After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a degree in dramatic arts, Duke took a position as a part-time teller at First & Merchants National Bank in her hometown of Virginia Beach, Va. — not because of any interest in the industry, but because she needed a job. That started a career that would include stints as CEO, chief operating officer and chief financial officer at a variety of firms, as well as time as a Federal Reserve governor.

But the path she took into the industry is narrowing as transactions went increasingly digital. That’s allowed banks to cut down branch networks, further shrinking teller ranks.

In the U.S., the number of tellers has slid 24% in the 10 years through May, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Canada, the number of customer-service representatives at financial institutions has fallen 27% from 2010 through last year, according to Statistics Canada.

Advice centers

In moves fairly common for the industry, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce has trimmed its branch network by 9.2% over the past five years, and has converted about 20% of its locations into “advice centers” that don’t have tellers at all. The tellers at locations that still have them also have new duties, like helping customers find the right credit card, said Peter Lee, the bank’s executive vice president for banking centers.

“Those roles evolve from being very focused on transactions, to being able to do transactions, but at the same time acquiring different skills,” Lee said in an interview.

In the U.S., the number of teller jobs is projected to slip 15% from 2019 to 2029, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and in Canada the government is forecasting an 8.4% drop from 2018 to 2028.

As teller jobs dwindle, and as those that remain include higher-value responsibilities, there’s a risk that banks will raise the educational requirements for those jobs, said Kaplan of the University of Toronto.

Pathway threatened

With about 80% of tellers lacking a bachelor’s degree, that threatens a pathway into the corporate world for women from less-privileged backgrounds. Teller jobs are relatively high-paying and have regular hours that allow workers to attend classes on the side.

“It’s an on-ramp to a middle-class lifestyle for people who don’t have more than a high-school education, and this is going to take away one of those on-ramps,” Kaplan said.

Currie, who leads Toronto-Dominion’s Canadian personal-banking operations, started with the lender as a teller in Calgary after her first year of university. She stuck with the job throughout college because of the engaging work and the steady hours that allowed her to continue her education, she said.

Before taking the position, she’d originally planned to be a math teacher, but after graduating she decided to stay. Many colleagues with similar decades-long banking careers started out in much the same way, Currie said.

“It was clear that there is and continues to be lots of opportunity at the bank to grow a career,” she said. “I’m a great example of that good fortune.”

Currie said she isn’t concerned that a decline in tellers will set back women’s progress in finance. She noted that 53% of the bank’s overall hires last year were women and that women accounted for 54% of its promotions in Canada.

Bakhshi, CEO of BNP Paribas SA’s Bank of the West, said a “huge focus” for her is getting women into roles in which they’re accountable for a business’s bottom line.

She started in banking as a part-time teller at a Northeast Savings Bank branch in upstate Latham, N.Y., after immigrating to the U.S. from India more than three decades ago. While she already had a master’s degree in international relations, the job was conveniently located at a nearby mall while she looked for other opportunities. She ended up staying in the industry, moving through roles at Bank of America Corp., Toronto-Dominion and other firms, before becoming Bank of the West’s CEO in 2016.

“What we need is a very strong pipeline and a very strong talent-management process, where you seek out women not only when they arrive, but when they are going through the process — when they are taking on new challenges,” Bakhshi said. “You’ve got to support them. You’ve got to mentor them and bring them along.”