Diversity, equity and inclusion are much more than just buzzwords; they are essential aspects that should be integrated into every organisation’s business strategy. However, when we examine the statistics around women in senior financial roles, and discuss the issues around gender in the workplace with women who are – or have been – senior female finance leaders, it quickly becomes apparent that a glaring gender balance remains.
The bare statistics tell the story. According to a report by Fortune, only 12% of CFOs at Fortune 500 companies are women. This number dwindles further when you look at FTSE 100 companies in the UK, where only 10 out of the 100 CFOs are women. The representation of women in these senior roles is not reflective of the wider workforce, where the proportion is closer to half. It’s a disparity that not only raises profound questions about equality – but which also hampers the diversity of thought and perspective that supports the financial wellbeing of every organisation.
The root causes of the imbalance
The lack of female representation at this senior level cannot be attributed to a single, isolated cause. Rather, it’s the outcome of a range of embedded systemic, cultural, and personal barriers. These obstacles often start early in a woman’s career and compound over time, effectively narrowing the pipeline that could potentially lead to more equitable representation in executive seats at the boardroom table. Identifying and discussing these barriers offers an opportunity for better understanding, as well as paving the way for actionable solutions.
Historically, societal norms have often steered girls and women away from fields like mathematics and finance. Although recent years have seen a positive shift towards greater female involvement in these areas, the lingering impact continues to influence educational choices and career paths, contributing to an ongoing underrepresentation in senior finance-related roles.
Inherent biases during hiring and promotion phases can skew decisions in favour of one demographic grouping, often unintentionally. Even when women possess equivalent qualifications and skills, they may face a different evaluation dynamic due to ingrained stereotypes about leadership attributes.
The demands of C-suite roles often include long hours and high levels of stress, which conflict with outdated expectations that it falls to women to take on a more significant share of household or caregiving responsibilities. While this is changing, there are still many companies that fail to exhibit a true commitment to supporting employees achieve a fulfilling balance between their personal and professional lives, such as by offering flexible working arrangements or sufficient parental leave.
The lack of these supporting elements can further exacerbate the challenges that women face in climbing the corporate ladder.
“My kids are in their 20s now, but when they were little, flexible working was in its infancy. I negotiated going part-time and took a demotion to be able to leave early enough from my role in London to get back from the nursery pick-up. Having our parents, friends, neighbours and other parents from nursery/school as a back-up was essential. I don’t think much has changed in that respect for working parents.”
Lynda Heywood, NED at Urban Logistics REIT
Lack of women role models
Situations where women don’t see others like themselves in positions of power can create a false perception that such achievements are unattainable, discouraging them from pursuing these opportunities. This effect perpetuates the cycle of underrepresentation.
Shortage of mentorship opportunities
Career progression can often be accelerated through the appropriate leveraging of networking and the mentorship provided by individuals in similar or more senior positions. Unfortunately, in many cases, this support structure is less accessible to women, owing to their limited representation in senior CFO roles.
Without sufficient mentorship and sponsorship, women may find themselves navigating the complexities of career advancement without guidance, causing them to miss out on valuable advice and growth opportunities.
Some corporate cultures still maintain an archaic mindset that discourages inclusion, fostering a work environment that is neither welcoming nor supportive for women to thrive, especially in senior leadership roles. This culture can manifest in various ways, from casual microaggressions to overt discrimination, all of which contribute to an environment where women feel undervalued and overlooked.
Strategies to move towards gender equilibrium
It’s vital to recognise that achieving gender parity for CFOs isn’t a matter of simple numerical adjustment; it requires a cultural shift, strategic alignment, and continuous efforts from every part of an organisation. Also, strategies to bring about this more even balance need to target not just the recruitment phase but the entire lifecycle of an employee’s career.
While progress to date has been slower than many had hoped, there are solid grounds for optimism. An important factor is that current and recent past generations of women CFOs have now paved the way for the upcoming cohort to emulate and surpass their achievements. Rising to the highest ranks will never be straightforward for anyone: the pyramid thins, and the competition toughens as careers progress. This is true for men and women. However, the rising generation of women leaders in finance will inevitably benefit from greater support and more opportunities than the generations that came before them.
So, what’s needed to redress the balance and close the CFO gender gap? While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, the cornerstone of any effective strategy must be a genuine commitment to diversity and inclusion from the top. Only then can we hope to design and implement actionable steps that chip away at the barriers women face in rising to senior financial positions.
In our previous article, “Building Diverse Leadership Teams,” we outlined three considerations for employers to proactively strengthen the diversity of their leadership teams. Drawing on our ongoing engagement and conversations with women in senior finance roles, here are some additional dimensions to consider.
Reshape company culture
Promoting a culture that values diverse perspectives is the first step. This involves turning the inclusive “tone from the top” into reality by using transparent communication between executives and HR departments to eliminate unconscious bias in hiring and promotion.
As highlighted in our previous article, active steps can also be taken to assess and change the language used in internal communications and job advertisements, making them more inclusive.
It’s also essential to engage employees, at every level, in diversity and inclusion training, helping to break down stigmas and encourage an inclusive work environment.
Tatiana Okhotina, CFO of CUBE, comments: “Companies can foster a more inclusive culture by promoting diversity at all levels. This involves implementing policies that support work-life balance, offering mentorship programs, and ensuring equal opportunities for career advancement.”
“Culture starts at the top. I am on a number of boards with equal male/female representation, and my experience is that this correlates well with an inclusive culture in the broader organisation. The choice of CEO is vital in this, and careful questioning and perhaps psychometric-type testing can flush out whether the candidate is going to be instrumental in ensuring that the culture is supportive of women – and in particular that hidden discrimination and subtle undermining are rooted out and eliminated.”
Caroline Ramsay, Chairman of the Risk Committee of Aegon
Leadership training programs
Investing in leadership development and mentorship programs specifically aimed at women can help in skill-building and instilling confidence. These programs should not only provide technical skills but also cover essential soft skills like negotiation, public speaking, and strategic thinking. By focusing on a holistic approach to leadership, women are often better prepared to take on the complex challenges of a C-Suite role.
Flexible work arrangements
Advances in technology mean the “9 to 5” workday is becoming less relevant. Flexibility in working arrangements can assist women in balancing their professional and personal lives, and supporting their ambitions to pursue senior roles. Flexible work options like part-time positions, varied working hours, hybrid working, or even job-sharing can help alleviate some of the pressures of work-life imbalance, making it easier for women to stay in the workforce and advance in their careers.
Asked what steps companies can take to create a more inclusive culture that supports women, especially as they take on more senior roles, Urban Logistics REIT NED Lynda Heywood advises: “Be truly flexible – for example, be open to structuring senior roles as part-time or shared. Ensure that policies are gender-agnostic. If senior roles are seen to work flexibly, those women (and men) will become role models for more junior members of the workforce.”
A key benefit of flexible work arrangements is that they can help women leaders strike a better balance between home and work. Tatiana Okhotina comments: “Balancing the demands of a C-suite role with personal responsibilities requires deliberate prioritisation and effective time management. Setting clear boundaries, leveraging technology, and fostering a supportive workplace culture are key. Encouraging a healthy work-life balance benefits both personal well-being and professional performance. An employer with the expectation of no personal life loses in the long run and promotes attrition.”
Encouraging allyship across the workforce
Women alone can’t rectify the gender imbalance solely through their own efforts. Truly moving the dial requires the active support and involvement of everybody in the workforce. This includes men acting as “allies” to support the progression and promotion of women. Organisations can foster this allyship by setting up programmes and communicating to build workforce-wide awareness.
Rachel Kentleton, Audit Chair of Travelodge Hotels Limited, urges companies to “build awareness of the challenges of being the only woman or one of a few in a leadership group…and also build a genuinely inclusive culture that doesn’t judge men and women differently.”
Fostering role modelling and mentorship opportunities
Having women role models in senior positions can be a powerful positive influence on those women looking to progress from more junior levels. Senior women can also undertake mentoring to share their own experiences and support younger colleagues.
Increasingly, we’re seeing female CFOs who have finished their executive careers continue to act as mentors for women in a range of different organisations.
These former CFOs are often eager to help the next generation build their own careers, and feel very fulfilled in doing so – creating a win-win for mentors and mentees.
The impact of women role models and mentors is a recurrent theme in our conversations with other female CFOs. “My significant career shifts forward have all been with female bosses,” explains Rachel Kentleton. “If you can see it, you can be it.”
In terms of advice to young women seeking mentorship in finance roles, Meliha Duymaz, CFO of Skanska, comments: “I’d advise them to seek mentors outside finance. I had the privilege of being mentored by a female managing director of a business I worked at. This has played a huge part in my personal development as a finance person, as I was able to appreciate what it takes to be an effective finance business partner to an MD.”
Tatiana Okhotina adds, “For young women seeking mentorship in finance roles, I recommend proactively seeking these mentors, building genuine connections, and being open to continuous learning.”
Companies can engage in policy advocacy for government reforms that support women in the workplace, such as childcare support and paid parental leave. These reforms can be crucial in levelling the playing field, as they remove some of the external barriers women face. Partnering with like-minded organisations to lobby for these changes amplifies the message and can accelerate the pace of change.
Asked what policy measures would most benefit women’s progression to senior roles, many women CFOs point to changes such as making high-quality childcare more affordable and more widely available. Tatiana Okhotina comments: “Governmental policy reforms play a crucial role in supporting women in the workplace. Policies focused on equal pay, family leave, and flexible work arrangements are essential.” Caroline Ramsay adds, “Anything that encourages and supports fathers who want to be the primary carer would also make a significant difference.”
Continuing the journey towards a diverse future
The conversation around gender imbalance in CFO roles is pressing for industries across the board. Addressing it effectively requires a concerted effort from all stakeholders. While the proportion of women in CFO roles is unbalanced, acknowledging the issue is the first step towards finding solutions.
By understanding the challenges women face and making strategic changes, we can move towards a more balanced and, consequently, more effective corporate world.
The talent is there; it’s the opportunities that are lacking. And as we know, in the ever-evolving business landscape, diverse leadership is not just an ethical imperative but a significant component for sustainable success.
The time for change is now, and it starts with all of us.