With talk of gender equality in the workplace becoming commonplace, from the red carpet to the Ford production line, female finance executives are also getting in on the conversation. They’re scanning the C-suites of large companies and wondering why so few women are CFOs.

Jenna Fisher

Jenna Fisher of Russell Reynolds

The reason is certainly not a supply shortage. In the United States, women now earn 51% of bachelor’s degrees in accounting, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. These degrees are being put to good use: Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that 61% of U.S. accountants and auditors are women.

But this early career majority doesn’t translate to the C-suite. In a recent analysis of the 1,000 largest U.S. public companies by revenue, I found that less than 12% of them had women CFOs.

There are similar situations in many professions. For example, a survey by LeanIn and McKinsey & Co. found that women respectively make up 29% and 21% of corporate vice president and senior vice president roles.

During nearly 15 years of experience helping companies hire CFOs and qualified financial experts for the board, we have reached two broad conclusions: Companies need to be kinder to women, and women need to be kinder to themselves.

More Flexible Policies

The female CFO drought is part of a wider drought of female senior financial executives. In general, many women do not reach the types of leadership positions that serve as stepping stones to that corner office.

The problem tends to begin when women start having children, generally in their 30s. Many studies have shown that doing so is a prime driver of income inequality between men and women. One recent Denmark-based study found that women tend to spend more time raising their children and performing other household duties than their husbands do.

As a result, they work fewer hours, take longer breaks from employment, and are more likely to move into less demanding jobs that also pay less. They also have fewer opportunities for advancement; the study found that women with children had a lesser chance of becoming a manager.

This study was conducted in a country known for its progressive government policies in pursuit of equality. Clearly, government fiats like paid leave cannot solve the problem alone — and may even exacerbate it — as women take more time away from work. So, employers must change their policies, too.

One tangible way to address these issues is to offer more flexible work schedules and teleworking. A recent U.K. study found that women with flexible schedules and telework options were more likely to keep working after childbirth and less likely to reduce their hours.

International experience has also become an increasingly important requirement for new CFO hires, but it may be difficult for women handling the majority of childcare responsibilities to get such experience. Flexible telework options could help ameliorate this issue.

Companies should also abandon the commonly held belief that if an executive has not reached the C-suite by a certain age, he or she is destined to never rise higher than a “number two” role. There should be less judgment of women — who, in addition to providing primary care for children are also more likely to take time off to care for aging parents — for not reaching a top leadership role in the common time frame.

Evaluating candidates based on a holistic view of people’s careers over their lifetime of work would provide companies with a broader set of more experienced people to draw upon.

More Self-Advocacy

Women should advocate for themselves. The female CFOs and other senior finance executives that we have observed as the most influential and successful tend to be those who have voiced their concerns and are more likely to assert themselves in the corporate world.

For example, in my years of recruiting women, I have seen firsthand how many are loath to raise their hands for promotions because they believe they need to check off every single box before moving to the next phase of their professional career. Women are much more likely to doubt themselves and their qualifications than are men.

It is important for women to remember that there is no such thing as a “perfect” candidate. Companies rarely see candidates who have already done it all, but they will always choose from those whom believe they could do it all — and do so successfully. Self-confidence is crucial.

Another example is the pressure working mothers put on themselves. By recasting the definition of success as a mother and a professional, women can free themselves from the crushing pressure of having to do everything flawlessly 100% of the time. Clearly that’s an impossible proposition, and by understanding that “perfect is often the enemy of “good,” women can find ways to succeed at both work and home — on their own terms.

I’m confident that, as these dynamics change, women will be on the road to the CFO role in greater numbers, making it easier for the next generation of women to follow.

Jenna Fisher leads several practices for recruiting firm Russell Reynolds Associates, including financial officers, human resources officers, general counsels, and corporate communications officers. Her expertise lies in recruiting CFOs, board directors, and audit committee members, although she has also conducted numerous assignments for treasurers, controllers, internal audit executives, and divisional finance chiefs.

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One response to “Inside the Fight for More Female CFOs”

  1. Hi Jenna,

    I loved your article. I am currently recruiting for a CFO for a small to mid-size dietary supplement company. I’d really love to encourage women to apply but am not sure where to post this opportunity for them! Would you know of any women who have CPG experience or dietary supplement experience that I can share this opportunity with? We need to place a new CFO very quickly. THANK YOU!

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