More women with CFO titles, but still far behind men

By Sarah Ovaska-Few

During Mary Winston’s tenure as a CFO at three large U.S. companies, she rarely dwelled on often being the only woman or person of color in executive meetings.

Instead, Winston, a CPA, concentrated on excelling at her job, whether it was in high-level roles at Pfizer or when she served as CFO for Scholastic, Giant Eagle, and Family Dollar.

“I could not be sitting in a room worrying about the fact that I was different from other people in the room,” she said. “That’s not why I was in the room. I was in the room to fulfill a job.”

In those roles, Winston was part of a small but growing percentage of minorities to hold CFO positions. Gender and racial diversity among CFOs continues to lag, studies show.

Women account for 12.6% of CFO positions in leading businesses, according to analysis of C-suite volatility in more than 673 large companies, most of which are based in the United States, by executive search firm Crist | Kolder Associates. That’s nearly double the percentage from a decade ago.

“Women in general in corporate America have made some strides and continue to,” Winston said. “It’s obviously too slow.” 

Winston is doing her part to combat that. Through service on boards and through her executive consulting firm WinsCo, she is focused on pushing for more diverse leaders on boards and in C-suites.

Seven percent of CFOs are people of color, the report found, with 46 individuals identified as ethnically or racially diverse, according to the report. In 2006, Crist | Kolder listed 16 ethnically or racially diverse CFOs.

#MeToo sparks discussions

The lack of women in leadership positions is receiving more scrutiny following sexual harassment and assault scandals that felled several major business and entertainment figures in 2017.

Eileen Treanor, the CFO at Lever, a Silicon Valley recruiting software company, said female CFOs began reaching out over the last year to talk to each other about how to open up the pipeline of women in the financial industry to ensure top talent can rise.

She credits the #MeToo movement, through which many women have used social media to share their experiences of sexual harassment and gender discrimination, for highlighting the issue.

“It’s started a conversation that should have been started a few years ago,” Treanor said.

In her career, Treanor said she can recall multiple occasions when she’s been talked over by male counterparts, or had an idea she came up with ignored or dismissed while the same idea was embraced when voiced by a male colleague.

“It’s scary how quickly women have become accustomed” to disparate treatment, Treanor said.

Skipped over early on

The gulf between male and female representation in CFO roles underscores the challenges women face in corporate workplaces, said Melissa Hooley, CPA, CGMA, the partner-in-charge of employee benefit plan services at Colorado accounting and consulting firm Anton Collins Mitchell.

“Just getting women into the pipeline isn’t enough,” said Hooley, chair of the AICPA Women’s Initiatives Executive Committee.

Women face setbacks early on in their careers, such as being passed over for promotions, that can be hard to rebound from, according to a 2017 report by McKinsey and Lean In, an organization founded by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg to promote women’s standing in corporate America.

The study, which analyzed hiring and promotion practices of more than 200 large companies and surveyed 70,000 employees, found that women are getting passed over for key promotions early in their careers, and continue to be passed over for promotions at disproportionate rates compared with their male colleagues throughout their careers.

That results in fewer women in top jobs. Reversing the tide could help rectify the gender inequities, the report’s authors wrote.

“This gender disparity has a dramatic effect on the pipeline as a whole: If entry-level women were promoted at the same rate as their male peers, the number of women at the SVP and C-suite levels would more than double,” the report said.

Companies should closely examine why women aren’t getting more promotions and look at unintentional biases, Hooley said. 

She said that women in the workplace tend to understate their abilities while men overstate theirs, one reason she suspects men are promoted at higher rates than women.

“Once people become more aware, I think that that’s where we’re going to make progress,” Hooley said.

Indeed, it is important to engage male leaders. Including men in conversations about diversity initiatives can help raise their awareness about the barriers faced by women and give them a voice in how an organization can implement advancement opportunities.

Support family policies

Companies that want to attract and retain talented women should strongly support associates as they go through life changes, such as becoming parents, Winston said.

Winston was in high-powered positions when both of her children were born and was initially worried if she’d face setbacks in her career by taking maternity leave. 

Those fears were set aside when her boss pulled her aside toward the end of her pregnancy and told her she had nothing to worry about.

“Having someone say that to you shows there’s support in the organization,” she said.

Need for talent

One major challenge most companies are facing is finding talented leaders. And that problem is only going to get worse, Hooley said.

“There’s going to be an incredible shortage of talent in the next 10 to 15 years with Baby Boomers retiring,” she said.

Treanor, the Lever CFO, agrees. Competition for talented leaders is fierce, and not seriously considering half the population will leave those companies at a disadvantage.

Sarah Ovaska-Few is a U.S.-based freelance writer. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Neil Amato, a JofA senior editor.

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