National Westminster Bank, with 65,000 employes in the United Kingdom and 90,000 employes worldwide, is one of the biggest banks in the world. Fifty-six percent of its staff is female. In the late '70s, research funded by the German Marshall Fund of the United States tracked women at the bank as part of a study of women in the industry and discovered that very few were making it into management.

"They were leaving to have children just as their careers were about to take off," says Anne Watts, whose title at National Westminster is career planning manager (equal opportunities for women). It takes 10 to 20 years to get into management at the bank, she says, and the women managers who were there tended to be in their fifties. "The statistics for women in the bank were very poor."

This became significant when the bank's management realized that there were 640,000 people leaving or graduating from school in England in 1981 but that number would drop by 25 percent in 1991. "We were aware that we were about to have a shortage of management talent simply from the fact that the number we were selecting from would decrease. Women were a logical place to look to develop the talent.

"Since obviously a number of women were going to leave to have children, we needed to develop a scheme to retain that management potential," she says.

The first career planning manager for women was appointed in 1980, and part of her responsibility was to administer a two-tiered system to enable potential women managers to better balance the responsibilities of family and career. Watts, who is currently studying affirmative action in the United States on a German Marshall Fund fellowship, is the third person to hold that job.

"For those women whom we identify as having senior management potential, we have a scheme which we call the reentry scheme," she says. In addition to six months' maternity leave guaranteed by law, the women can take a maximum of five years off when a child is born while working a minimum of two weeks a year at the bank and attending an annual seminar. "Anytime up to the end of five years they have a guarantee from the bank to full-time reemployment at the same level at which they left the bank," Watts says.

"For those with slightly less potential, i.e., junior or middle management potential, we have a reservist scheme. And while it's basically the same scheme as the reentry scheme, they don't have an automatic guarantee to reemployment. We put them on a reserve list and as and when our operational requirements give us a vacancy we reemploy them at the same level as they left.

"Many of the women do more than two weeks every year, mostly because they want to do more, and it's entirely in our interest because they're asked if they want to cover operational emergencies," such as illnesses and holidays. That saves overtime costs. "What you're keeping on your books is very high quality, skilled staff, with a lot of experience, because to go on the scheme in our organization, we ask for a minimum of five years of service with the bank." There are currently 79 women "on the scheme," says Watts, 15 who are reentrants and 64 who are reservists.

"The other benefit to the organization is that these women are having an experience in life which is very appropriate to the business environment. That is, they are learning time management, decision making, control of individuals, planning, budgeting, etc., which are all absolutely essential to the successful running of today's banking world.

"The other important thing is that because we were the first company in the U.K. to pioneer this scheme, many women, particularly many of the best graduate women, have identified Westminster Bank as the company to join because they recognize that they are going to have a better equal opportunity than in many organizations. They don't have to make this terrible decision as to career or family. They can combine having a very successsful career with bringing up children."

The program has been widely publicized in England, says Watts, and as a result many other companies are considering similar plans.

She believes the plan can be adapted to any medium or large corporation. "I think," she says, "that enlightened employers who introduce a scheme similar to this will find it pays them dividends far beyond what they could imagine in terms of staff morale and commitment to their organization."

All good reasons for American companies that need to develop women managers to take a look at what National Westminster is doing. This is one banking scheme that makes very good sense.