Women in Finance: Hear Them Roar

Most respondents to a new survey would recommend a career in finance to women starting out today, but for executive women in finance, a work/life b...
Lisa YoonFebruary 16, 2006

The vast majority of executive women in finance are satisfied with their careers and would recommend finance to women starting out today, but nearly half say they’ve been personally affected by the “glass ceiling.”

Those are some of the major findings of a newly released study by executive search firm Korn/Ferry International. Of the nearly 100 women who responded to the survey last fall, three-quarters have advanced degrees, half are CPAs, and most work for companies with more than $1 billion in annual revenue.

Fully 90 percent of survey respondents say they are satisfied with their finance careers, and 95 percent would recommend finance to women starting their careers today. Yet just 70 percent are satisfied with their overall level of career success, and only 61 percent expect to stay in the finance function for the rest of their working life — suggesting that many also have aspirations beyond finance.

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Indeed, for some time, chief financial officers have been expected to take on additional duties in operations and general managements. Not surprisingly, an increasing number of CFOs — both men and women — are winning promotions to the post of CEO.

“The generation now finishing their careers as CFOs were the pioneers,” says Ellen Williams, a managing director at Korn/Ferry. For these women, she continues, ascending to the top finance was a significant achievement. Williams also maintains that opportunities for women finance executives are “better than ever” — and that it’s realistic for many of them to aspire to CEO.

Even so, the glass ceiling seems still to be in place. Two-thirds of survey respondents say their gender was either helpful or a non-issue as they moved up the ranks, but the story changed as they reached the top. Fully 61 percent of respondents perceive a glass ceiling in finance; of that group, nearly three-quarters say they were personally affected.

Then there’s the “boys’ club” mentality. Fifty-nine percent of survey respondents believe that confronting gender bias has been one of their most significant career challenges; there’s still a “reluctance to give a woman appropriate career opportunities,” said one.

A large part of this mentality is cultural, says Williams, who observes that many bonding activities embraced by top executives are traditionally the domain of men — golf, for instance. One survey respondent even reported taking up the game, but Williams doesn’t see the need to go so far; she believes the erosion of the boys’ club mentality is a process of evolutionary, organic change.

Indeed, as they gain more power in the workplace, women are finding ways to promote such change themselves. A number of survey respondents reported how they mentor younger finance executives, noting that they had few women role models of their own as they moved up the ranks in finance.

They’re also helping to push for improvements outside the workplace. According to Bo Young Lee, directory of advisory services at Catalyst, an advocacy organization for women in business: “Twenty years ago, women in senior leadership sacrificed almost everything to get there. You no longer see that. There’s more insistence on work/life balance.” Only 16 percent of respondents opted not to have children for example, although 52 percent reported that their personal relationships were affected, and 71 percent back-burnered health or exercise programs.

The work/life balance that women executives have fought for have come to benefit men, too. Williams observes, for instance, that male CFOs are increasingly working from home some days or leaving the office early for parenting obligations. In a substantial way, she notes, women “have changed the way work gets done.”