(BLOOMBERG) – For years, women have had a foot in the door to the finance industry by becoming bank tellers. Now that path is disappearing due to the increase in e-banking.

The number of tellers – a job in which four out of five positions are held by women – has dropped more than 20 per cent in the United States and Canada in the past decade as transactions move from branches to mobile phones.

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

“I wouldn’t have been a banker without it,” said former Wells Fargo chair Betsy Duke, who started as a teller. Women hold 51 per cent of entry-level positions and 38 per cent of senior management jobs in the banking and consumer finance industry in the US.

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

The picture has improved somewhat over the past year, with Ms Jane Fraser being named head of Citigroup last September, and Ms 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. Ms Llewellyn of Laurentian Bank, Bank of the West chief executive Nandita Bakhshi, Toronto-Dominion Canadian personal banking head Teri Currie and Ms Duke all started as tellers.

After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a degree in dramatic arts, Ms Duke became a part-time teller at First & Merchants National Bank in her home town of Virginia Beach, Virginia – 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 go increasingly digital. That has allowed banks to cut down branch networks, further shrinking teller ranks.

In the US, the number of tellers has slid 24 per cent in the 10 years through May.

In moves fairly common for the industry, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce has trimmed its branch network by 9.2 per cent over the past five years, and has converted about 20 per cent of its locations into “advice centres” that do not 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 Mr Peter Lee, the bank’s executive vice-president for banking centres.

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

In the US, the number of teller jobs is projected to slip 15 per cent from 2019 to 2029, according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, and in Canada the government is forecasting an 8.4 per cent drop from 2018 to 2028.

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

With about 80 per cent 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,” Prof Kaplan said.

Ms 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 in an interview.

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

She added that she is not concerned that a decline in tellers will set back women’s progress in finance. She noted that 53 per cent of the bank’s overall hires last year were women and that women accounted for over half of its promotions in Canada.