Of the 308.7 million people counted in the United States 2010 Census, some 50.8% were women. Seen against that number, the 13.8% of Fortune 500 companies that currently have women occupying the top finance job may not be encouraging to those who value gender diversity, at least when it comes to C-level jobs in Corporate America.
But there has been a steady, if slow, increase of diversity over the past decade or so. The percentage of female Fortune 500 CFOs at the end of 2015 is more than double the 6.8% reported as of year-end 2006, and that score has risen in almost all of the years in between. Similarly, the 29 people of color (6%) who are finance chiefs at America’s largest companies is up from 16 (3.3%) in 2006, according to figures compiled by executive search firm Spencer Stuart.
The advance of women in finance has been pretty much spread out among all sectors of the economy, with all industries except for life sciences having seen an increase in female CFOs in 2015, Spencer Stuart reports. Revealingly, the technology, media, and telecommunications sectors — all industries in a high state of flux and the most likely to recruit CFOs from other sectors — currently have the highest percentage of female finance chiefs.
Silicon Valley itself, although not known particularly as an employment mecca for gender diversity, has seen a relatively high proportion of women become finance chiefs at large public companies, with prominent examples including Microsoft’s Amy Hood, Alphabet’s Ruth Porat, Kelly Kramer of Cisco Systems, and Judy Bruner of SanDisk.
But it may prove to be some time before the number of female CFOs in general reach anything approaching women’s majority status in the population.
“We’re really happy to see this progress,” says Karen Quint, a consultant with Spencer Stuart’s CFO recruitment area. “I think [the percentage of women CFOs] will continue to increase.” But, says Quint, noting the relative absence of women in jobs like corporate controller or vice president of finance that would position them to reach top finance spots, “the biggest issue is that there’s still a small pool to draw from.”
While most firms still want finance backgrounds, adds Quint, the top companies are looking for candidates with a “diversity of experience, international or global experience,” and “experience expanding a business.”
Another factor that may continue to hold women back results from age-hold attitudinal differences that reward assertive men for their drive while sometimes stigmatizing women who exhibit the same qualities as “pushy.” Often, this can have the effect of causing some women to rein in their behavior, sometimes to their detriment. “A colleague of mine told me about a situation in which a man and a woman, both well qualified [and internal candidates], were going for a CFO job,” relates Cheryl Miller, CFO of AutoNation, a Fortune 150 automotive retailer. “The man said, ‘I can do this role and I am qualified for this role and I won’t stay unless I get it.’ The woman said, ‘I am behind you whatever you decide.’ The man got the job.”
In other cases, behavioral biases can cause women and their ideas to be overlooked.
Yvette Butler, president of Capital One Investing since 2015, has a lengthy background in the financial services industry, including stints at Wells Fargo, E*Trade, and Merrill Lynch. She recalls mixed-gender business meetings along the way: “Time and time again you would say something and it would go around and around the table, and a man would say the same thing and suddenly people would pay attention.”
At the same time, says Butler, the relative lack of assertive behavior on the part of women can prove an advantage when it comes to the leadership skills they need to succeed. “It models the behavior that helps teams collaborate,” she argues of the need to play the proverbial game.
In addition to gender, as in Butler’s case, other factors must be considered when considering diversity. “Obviously, as an African-American woman I come with the full package,” she says. “You don’t know if somebody’s reacting to your gender or your ethnicity or race.”
A major factor that continues to hold women back is motherhood and the need to balance work and family. But there are signs that this age-old obstacle may be on the way to becoming, if not a non-issue, at least a concern shared by both partners in a marriage. “Do you ask men the same question?” was the way Elizabeth Reese, CFO of AGL Resources, an Atlanta-based energy company, responded when asked how she balances work and family.
For some women, like AutoNation CFO Miller, who married last year and has no children, the work-family balance conundrum has yet to come into play. “For me it’s been a matter of work hard, play hard,” is the way she puts it. Estée Lauder CFO Tracey Travis has two daughters (one a college graduate and the other just starting college) and admits there often were times when she had to draw the line when her children were growing up. “The weekends were off-limits” to work, recalls Travis, who held CFO positions at four other companies before joining Estée Lauder in 2012.
Family concerns, notes Spencer Stuart’s Quint, are not exclusively the concerns of women these days. “It’s more of a question of individuals,” she says.
In any case, companies and those that recruit for them are increasingly seeing gender diversity not only as a worthy goal in and of itself, but also as a way to improve company performance. “If you come at it with a more diverse perspective, you create a more successful company,” contends Capital One Investing’s Butler.
“Women are better leaders because they’re better able to draw on other emotional competencies,” says Bryan Proctor, global leader of Korn Ferry’s financial officer practice. The Fortune 500 companies, says Proctor, are only just beginning to catch on, but obviously have some catching up to do. “It’s no secret that the top companies in the U.S. are deficient in terms of diversity as far as gender is concerned,” he says. “There’s been a small but slow movement in that direction.”
But, he admits, this progress will take time. “It takes a long time to build up that bunch of candidates who are qualified,” he says.
For a personal perspective on the growing role of women in finance, CFO spoke to 4 of the 67 women who have made it to the top finance position at Fortune 500 companies, getting their take on their career paths and the challenges (gender specific or otherwise) they have faced along the way. Their stories follow.
• Cheryl Miller, AutoNation
Cheryl Miller is executive vice president and CFO of AutoNation, which is the largest retailer of automobiles in the United States. The company has 26,000 employees and booked nearly $21 billion of revenues in 2015.
Miller began her career in the financial management training program at Circuit City’s corporate headquarters and has since racked up more than 20 years of corporate finance experience, including over 15 years in the auto industry, including retail, rental, distribution and captive finance.
She joined AutoNation in 2009 as treasurer and vice president of investor relations. Since becoming CFO in 2014, Miller is credited with helping AutoNation achieve key milestones, including attaining its lowest-ever sales, general, and administrative costs as a percentage of gross profits and becoming the only automotive retailer in the U.S. to earn an investment-grade rating.
But although Miller is relatively young (43) for her level of accomplishment, she nonetheless can look back to an era when there were hardly any women in finance, particularly insofar as the auto industry was concerned.
“I used to spend days in New York where I was the only woman present at the meeting,” she says, maintaining that while this situation has changed, it’s still only “a matter of degree.”
Still, Miller is not alone as a woman in the executive suite, sharing that distinction with Donna Parlapiano, the company’s senior vice president in charge of franchise operations and corporate real estate. She also credits a support network of both men and women for helping her along the way. AutoNation chairman and CEO Mike Jackson has been supportive of her, she says, noting that his wife, Alice Jackson, provided a close-up example of a successful businesswoman as a commercial real estate broker.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to have men that have made great mentors,” Miller says. “Men who believe in equality and diversity.”
• Tracey Travis, Estée Lauder
If any woman could be said to have a female-friendly company to work for, it would have to be Tracey Travis, who became executive vice president and chief financial officer of cosmetics and personal care products giant The Estée Lauder Companies in 2012. Not only was the company founded by a woman, but the vast majority of the company’s customers are women, as well as 84.7% of its 44,000 employees, 3 of 12 of its executive officers, and 7 out of 15 of its board members.
Given that Travis was CFO of Ralph Lauren from 2005 to 2012 and held finance positions at Intimate Brands and Limited Brands before that, one would be tempted to look at her career as one conducted (and nurtured) in companies that had a strong female cohort. But this was not the case when she started out.
She began her professional life in 1983 as an engineer at General Motors, where, as an African-American woman in a testosterone-laden industry, she “felt challenged by gender more so than race.” It was while working in Detroit that she met her husband, Richard Travis, a lawyer specializing in labor practice, whom she credits with being “an incredibly supportive partner throughout my career.”
With the addition of her two daughters to the family, “we decided we needed a live-in, but in terms of who would actually be the parent, who would be available in terms of parent-teacher conferences, we decided it would be [her husband],“ she says.
This supportive family setup was probably also a great help when Travis engineered her career shift from engineering to finance, going back to school and getting her MBA from Columbia University with a double concentration in finance and engineering operations. She eventually parlayed her background into work at Pepsi Bottling, including six years managing a bottling plant, before moving to the fashion and personal care sectors.
Her work spanning decades and industries has given her a singular perspective on issues of diversity. “Early in my career, women who were very smart and very driven were not seen the same as men with these same characteristics,” she recalls.
“Fast-forward 30 years to see that the current chairman and CEO at General Motors [Mary Barra] is a wonderful woman,” she says. “Certainly we’ve made progress, but certainly there is progress to be made.”
• Kelly Kramer, Cisco Systems
Kelly Kramer is executive vice president and CFO of Cisco Systems, where she manages the financial strategy and operations of a company with more than 72,000 employees and about $50 billion in revenue. Kramer, who joined Cisco in 2012 after spending 20 years working at General Electric across many divisions and countries, ascended to the top finance spot at the tech giant in early 2015.
It was at GE that she met her husband, Dennis Kramer, 24 years ago. Dennis, who retired two years ago, had an electrical engineering background, which gave him a level of specific technical expertise that made it more difficult to jump from job to job. “Financial skills are a lot more fluid,” says Kelly Kramer. “It’s a lot easier to jump from medical to locomotive finance, for example, than it would be to move between similar engineering disciplines.”
As a result, it has been her career that has propelled the most geographical movement on the part of her and her family, she says, with her move to California to work at Cisco “our 13th relocation as a family.”
Today, Kramer has a C-suite leadership role in an industry not particularly noted for its diversity, at least insofar as its lower and middle ranks are concerned. “It’s pretty well documented that tech has been low on the gender-diversity scale,” she admits.
At the same time, as she points out, despite their relative absence in line-level jobs like programming and coding, women have managed to make it to the upper echelons in many tech companies like Cisco, where 40% of the executive team is female. And this has proven to be particularly the case in finance, when you consider her and the other women cited above who have succeeded becoming CFOs at major tech companies.
All the same, the representation of women in senior finance positions has a long way to go, says Kramer. “Obviously, it’s not where it needs to be.”
• Elizabeth Reese, AGL Resources
Elizabeth (Beth) Reese was named CFO of AGL Resources in 2015, directing finance, accounting, and business-planning functions for the Atlanta-based energy services holding company, which operates seven natural gas distributors in seven states, servicing some 4.5 million customers.
Since at least 2012, when she became the first woman president of AGL’s Nicor Gas utility in Illinois, Reese has been a champion of diversity-related programs at the company. That year she became the first chair of its LEAD (Leadership, Empowerment, Acceptance, Diversity) Council.
In this capacity, Reese has come to appreciate the importance of nurturing women at the earliest ages. “We need to get girls age eight and nine interested in math and the other STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] subjects,” she says.
“Certainly progress is being made because women are starting their careers earlier enough,” says Reese. “If you think of the different careers from which CFOs are drawn, such as accounting and banking—if you look at that as a candidate pool—they’re still very dominated by men.”
In the meantime, as this set of facts changes, Reese says she enjoys working in the energy/utilities sector. The perspective many people have of the industry is that it’s a male-dominated one, she says. “But I don’t think we’re different from any other industry.”
Ed Zwirn is a freelance writer based in Bethel, New York.
All photos courtesy the companies.