Women are doing a bang-up job as Chief Financial Officers (CFOs). A recent study by the recruiting firm Korn Ferry showed that companies that appointed a woman to the top finance role saw a six percent increase in profitability – and eight percent higher stock returns – during their first 24 months in office. Over the 17-year period for the study, firms with female CFOs generated $1.8 trillion more in gross profit than their sector average.
Yet as of December 2020, only 12 percent of companies overall had women CFOs.1 A 2019 analysis showed a stronger level of women CFOs in industries such as retail (19 percent) and consumer products (14 percent), but women still have a long way to go to obtain proper representation in finance.
Voices of change
What is standing in the way of more women taking the top finance job? Although some barriers are coming down, there are still big obstacles facing women in finance, according to four women Accenture leaders – Tiffany Brown, Katherine Mohrig, Sandra Moreno, and Andrea Vogel -- who are Managing Directors (MDs) at the consultancy. In interviews conducted as part of International Woman’s Day celebrations, the Accenture MDs noted steady and encouraging signs of progress. They also identified structural challenges women in finance still face and provided advice for women, and for broader finance organizations, to continue increasing female representation in finance leadership.
“The problem starts early, when young women are encouraged to look at career fields that are more creative, such as marketing, or more people-oriented, such as HR,” said Tiffany Brown. “There are many women who are Chief Marketing Officers or Chief Human Resources Officers. When we see more women CFOs, this will provide positive reinforcement for women thinking about careers in finance.”
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Other hurdles women face include their responsibilities as parents and caregivers as well as lingering gender bias and stereotyping. Sometimes overlooked, but noted by the Accenture MDs, is the “I’m not good enough” mindset. “Women feel they have to do much more to be considered for promotion,” said Brown. “They think they need to accomplish five key objectives before they put themselves up for the next job, when a lot of men are happy to put themselves forward after accomplishing three. Don’t be afraid, and just be yourself.”
But self-advocacy is only part of landing promotions. “Sponsorship is a key element of career advancement,” said Katherine Mohrig. “Sponsors invest in someone’s success and actively help that person rise; it’s more than just mentorship. Women have a more difficult time finding sponsors, especially in male-dominated fields. That’s why it’s so important for finance leaders to intentionally take on this role for women in finance. And at every level, it makes a difference to have someone who is giving you the right opportunities, helping you build the right relationships. So, leaders – look for high potential women to sponsor. Women in finance, seek out strong leaders and ask them to be your sponsor.”
In addition to finding capable sponsors, Mohrig urges women to take calculated risks. “Don’t hold yourself back from pursuing that promotion or high-profile project – if you think you’re 100% ready for something, you’re already too late. Find opportunities that stretch you and help you grow,” she says.
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It’s likely that part of the reason some women hold themselves back is tied to not seeing “someone like me” filling leadership positions today. “There is a lack of role models for potential women CFOs,” said Sandra Moreno. “There aren’t that many, and in some countries such as Spain or Korea there are very few indeed. Part of this may be because finance is seen as an analytical, rational function not well suited to women. That’s a misconception, of course. The truth is that finance is much more than numbers and that strengths such as empathy, interpersonal skills and social awareness are becoming increasingly important in identifying and selecting CFO candidates.”
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Enterprises should treat gender parity as a strategic initiative. It should be tracked, evaluated and reported on.
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Andrea Vogel noted some of the less quantifiable benefits of promoting women to the CFO role. “Women in finance tend to bring critical thinking and a long-term perspective to the job. They look at the whole chessboard, balancing issues such as sustainability and work-life balance as part of the equation that creates value. We are seeing finance teams becoming more diverse, and we are seeing more and more of the attitudes and behaviors at the top that encourage equal opportunities and a path to advancement for women.”
So, what can organizations do to support aspiring female finance leaders? The Accenture MDs suggested some actions to help increase the number of women senior executives in finance:
- Redefine some of the “rules of engagement” in finance to make finance careers more flexible and more family friendly. And this isn’t just for women – it means giving men more flexibility to take on caregiver tasks at home, too, to drive equality.
- Establish formal sponsorship programs for women and underrepresented groups, as well as informal and more inclusive networking and relationship-building activities.
- Set up a “chief of staff” role where capable women candidates can learn and cut their teeth on issues and situations that can position them for the most senior roles in finance.
- Create stretch roles and career growth paths where skilled women can lead-cross enterprise teams and programs addressing operational efficiency and sustainable growth challenges.
- Invest in training for critical digital and technology skills – this goes hand-in-hand with the growing role of finance and CFOs and is valuable for all genders.
- Finance leadership needs to do a better job of presenting or “branding” the future of finance to aspiring women finance leaders. Using techniques like storytelling can help articulate the future of finance and how women can help inspire and lead the enterprise on a path to sustainable growth.
Although barriers persist and have been exacerbated by COVID’s disproportionate effect on women and gender parity, the outlook for women in finance is promising -- and improving. The finance function is changing as the nature of finance work changes, driving an increased need for diverse talent and leadership. More than ever, finance is about using data to develop strategic insights, about team building and collaboration with business units to address cross enterprise issues, about finding new ways to help the organization grow in disruptive times. As the Accenture MDs agreed, it’s a great time for women to enter the finance profession, and it’s a great time for women to take on the senior finance roles that were once closed to them.
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1. S&P Capital IQ (2020) of Fortune 100 (2020) as of December 2020.