Executive Women in Finance
Overcoming Challenges and Looking Ahead

By Charles B. Eldridge, Paula Park, Abbee Phillips, and Ellen Williams

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JANUARY 2007 - Many female finance executives still struggle with gender bias, lack of recognition for achievements, balancing their business and personal lives, and establishing strong mentorship and support systems, according to a recent study by executive search firm Korn/Ferry International. The study’s findings, supplemented by on-the-record interviews, have far-reaching implications for companies that wish to recruit and retain top female talent, and for today’s female finance executives as they plan their career paths.


Many more women are proven, recognized financial experts compared to 20 years ago when the Big Eight accounting firms were still dominated by men. As a result, companies are seeking to maximize diversity and are considering a wide range of candidates for financial leadership roles that are increasingly important to the CEO and outside stakeholders.

According to Public Accounting Report’s 2005 “Annual Survey of Women in Public Accounting,” close to 50% of young professionals entering the accounting profession are female, yet women hold just 15% of the partner positions at the profession’s largest firms. Many of the rest of these women appear to land in corporate finance.

While the respondents to Korn/Ferry’s survey were primarily female finance executives (vice president and above) within large U.S. corporations, nearly half gained their foundation in public accounting. Additionally, almost three-quarters of the respondents hold a business degree (MBA or equivalent), which suggests that uniting an accounting background with a formal business education is an attractive combination in corporate finance.

Today’s Female Finance Executive

Because of the public’s recent skepticism about corporate ethics, “the person in the finance role receives more visibility internally and externally,” said Jane Nielsen, vice president of finance for Pepsi Bottling Group, North America. Consequently, most respondents to the survey would recommend finance careers to women embarking on professional paths. Interestingly, respondents cited traditionally “nonfinancial” attributes such as interpersonal skills, confidence, managerial skills, and listening skills as drivers of their own professional success (see Exhibit 1).

Nearly half (49%) of respondents mentioned mentors and other supporters as being integral to their success. For example, one respondent who is married and has a five-year-old son said the participation of her husband’s parents was “absolutely crucial” to her sense of well-being as a mother.

Most respondents have worked without significant breaks in their careers; rather than cutting down on work, they sacrificed time on outside commitments and interests (see Exhibit 2).

Senior management should note, however, that requiring substantial personal sacrifices may have a long-term negative effect on morale and retention. Companies may gain in the short term by having employees who think they have to work twice as hard and devote less time to outside interests and personal relationships. Over time, however, those companies suffer lower employee morale and are ultimately unable to attract and retain top talent.

Gender Bias

Gender bias continues to be a major issue for female finance executives. Respondents were reluctant to confront gender-based misconceptions about their commitment as executives, as well as unspoken stereotypes and prejudices (see Exhibit 3).

Overall, 59% of respondents said that gender bias is one of the biggest challenges they face in their career. When starting a new position, many respondents had to face the presumption that they were hired or promoted only because of their gender, not their skills or experience. According to one respondent: “Early in my career, [one of my biggest obstacles was] convincing people that I got the job because of my abilities and not because of my gender. You just work harder to prove your abilities.”

Sexist assumptions can also limit women’s opportunities to establish the camaraderie that many men assume is essential to a working environment. One respondent noted, “I often find that I am the only woman in executive and professional meetings. Although treated with respect, I believe the men still have a preference to work with other men. Although I consider myself to be friendly in the workplace, I am very selective in intermingling my personal and professional interactions.” This respondent also stated that women cannot yet expect to be as casual with peers and bosses as their male colleagues. This element of the double standard can be detrimental to both the female professional and her employer.

Sometimes exclusions are overt and insulting. Most of the time, however, the bias is more covert, perceptible more because of what does not happen than what does. One respondent identified “the perception that because I am a woman, wife, and mother, I have different career goals and commitments.” Despite this, another respondent pointed out one major advantage of being in the financial arena: “No matter what people’s prejudices may be, your ownership of the financial facts gives you an objective basis, and nothing dispels predispositions more quickly than facts.”

Unacknowledged gender discrimination can result in a woman’s inability or reluctance to claim credit for her accomplishments. This lack of recognition can hamper a woman’s ability to be rewarded and move upward in an organization.

The Work-Life Challenge

Establishing a work-life balance was the second-most-mentioned career challenge, garnering 33% of responses. One executive noted that her biggest challenge was “progressing upwards within an organization without a maternity leave policy after having a child. … Despite a problem-free pregnancy, carrying the same workload as everyone else while pregnant, and working until an hour before delivery, the firm I was with questioned my commitment when I asked for more than a two-week maternity leave.”

Another said, “Leadership has made assumptions about my capability and commitment as a working mother. I have dealt with this by querying back what lies behind these assumptions. Is it an actual performance issue? Is it a ‘face-time’ issue?” Despite working mothers making arrangements for their children, their careers may still be hampered by preconceptions about motherhood’s impact on a woman’s work.

Finding a Strong Mentor

Another obstacle frequently mentioned was the paucity of women in senior positions at the time many respondents began their careers. According to one: “[The] lack of role models in key finance or other highly regarded functions within a company [has been my biggest challenge]. Women need to understand, develop, and be very aware of the need for networking, mentoring, and other avenues that are typical in a man’s course of business.” Some respondents noted that their male colleagues are not hindered by such constraints: “It seems as if men still have an easier ability to identify a mentor in a company who can help with their career progression, e.g., promotion to the next level.”

According to a CFO respondent, the increased number of women in finance means that female mentors should become more common. She is also optimistic that the overall business environment will become more gender-neutral. She took issue, however, with how feedback to women is often sugar-coated or avoided altogether, meaning that they miss the opportunity to learn their weaknesses and overcome them.

“With women, there are fewer avenues that are nonthreatening to let the subtle stuff get through from the boss,” she said. “If there is a flaw with a woman … it doesn’t get discussed for a long time. Men are often afraid the woman will have an emotional reaction or personalize the criticism of her work.” She advises women to seek out feedback early in their careers and become comfortable hearing it. Finding a strong mentor who speaks with candor and gives specific advice is “the ultimate gift.”

Diversity and Moving Forward

While 95% of the study’s respondents recommended finance as a career choice, 39% indicated that they do not anticipate remaining in finance until retirement. Explained one woman: “[This] may be less an indication of dissatisfaction and more [of] a sign that women have a broad context and see multiple options.” Another commented that “it may be a sense that there could be something great around the corner, whether in business or government.”

Companies hoping to develop and retain finance talent must be aware that women executives will accept opportunities elsewhere if they are not offered appropriate challenges and rewards, or if any gender bias is not remedied. Several respondents made the strategic decision to “move to jobs or companies where [these issues] are less prevalent.” This would indicate that, for such individuals looking for a new employer, diversity in upper management and on the board can be a positive sign that a company has a progressive and tolerant culture.

Korn/Ferry found that most companies insist on a diverse slate of candidates when looking to fill senior operational and financial positions, as well as director posts. Diversity at the top means a greater ability to attract, develop, and keep individuals who can move the business forward. Besides being the right thing to do, promoting diversity better prepares a company to compete successfully in the global marketplace.

Charles B. Eldridge, Paula Park, Abbee Phillips, and Ellen Williams are members of the financial officers practice of Korn/Ferry International, the world’s largest executive search firm, headquartered in Los Angeles, Calif. They specialize in recruiting for a broad range of financial roles, including chief financial officer, corporate controller, treasurer, chief audit executive, and leading roles in tax, strategic planning, and divisional finance.





















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