“I had to make a choice,” recalls Martine Verluyten. “Was I going to remain eternally in the background, or would I fight to become CFO?”

She faced this decision shortly before her 50th birthday, after a long and varied business career. Rising through the ranks as an auditor — one of only two women in the firm at the time — she was put off accountancy as a long-term career option when, during a performance review, an incredulous (male) manager scoffed at the notion of her becoming the first female partner in continental Europe.

Shortly after that meeting, Verluyten packed up her desk and moved to Raychem, an electronics company, working for more than 20 years in a variety of finance posts in Europe and the U.S., “but never very close to the CFO role,” she notes. In 2000, she joined Mobistar, a fast-growing Belgian mobile-phone company, as deputy CFO. When the incumbent CFO left six months after she arrived, it was the first time she faced a realistic shot at the top finance post. She knew, however, that her promotion from second-in-command would not come easy. After all, there were very few female finance chiefs at companies of Mobistar’s size in Belgium — or anywhere else in Europe, for that matter — at the time. And Verluyten had not forgotten that fateful performance review at the audit firm.

After a “hard-fought struggle,” Verluyten convinced Mobistar’s board to appoint her as CFO, a post she kept for six years. In June 2006, she moved to Brussels-based Umicore, a €9 billion specialty metals group, also as CFO. She’s now one of only two female CFOs at a company in Belgium’s blue-chip BEL 20 index. (The other is Anne Vleminckx at imaging systems company Agfa-Gevaert.)

But compared with other European countries, Belgium is awash with female finance chiefs. Currently there are no female CFOs in Germany’s DAX 30 or France’s CAC 40, while just two have made it into the U.K.’s benchmark FTSE 100 index — Jann Brown of oil and gas group Cairn Energy and Helen Weir of bank Lloyds TSB. Weir also holds the honor of being the only female CFO among the 100 largest companies in Europe. Female finance executives fare slightly better on the other side of the Atlantic. Nine of the U.S.’s 100 largest companies currently have female CFOs.

The paucity of female finance chiefs in Europe is puzzling given the steady flow of women into finance over the past few decades. Women now account for more than half of university graduates in the EU, and around 30 percent of chartered accountants and MBAs. What’s more, nearly a third of corporate managerial jobs in the EU are filled by women. Beyond middle management, however, the trends change. Just over 8 percent of European corporate board members are women, with most occupying non-executive director roles. The percentage of women who make it to Europe’s top executive posts can be counted with a single hand, often with fingers to spare. By contrast, 16.5 percent of the members of US boards are women, as are 15 percent of the members of executive committees, according to Ricol, Lasteyrie & Associés, a Paris-based consultancy.

Still, progress has been made. In a 1965 study published in the Harvard Business Review, implausibly titled “Are Women Executives People?,” only a quarter of 2,000 workers — half men and half women — said that they would feel comfortable working for a woman. Nearly two-thirds said that companies would never accept the idea of female executives.

Balancing Acts

Although attitudes have changed categorically since the 1965 survey, the pace of change has been slow. Last year, 13 percent of director vacancies at FTSE 100 companies in the U.K. were filled by women, down from 17 percent in 2005 and barely up from 12 percent in 2001, according to the Cranfield School of Management in the U.K. Among the U.K.’s 350 largest companies, the percentage of female CEOs rose from around 1 percent in 1997 to 3 percent last year, while women fared marginally better in finance, with the share of female CFOs rising from 2 percent to 4 percent over the same period.

Monika Hamori, a professor at the Instituto de Empresa in Madrid, has been studying the career paths of executives at the 100 largest companies in Europe and the U.S. over the past 20 years. She found that women disproportionately outnumber men in “important mid-tier positions” — that is, the proportion of female senior vice presidents to the total number of female executives is far greater than the comparable figure for men.

For the few women who scale to the top of the corporate ladder, it can be a swift ascent. Compared with their male colleagues, female executives are younger, take less time to reach the top and hold fewer jobs on the way up. Some notable CEO appointments in the past year have also come via finance, including former CFO Indra Nooyi at American beverage company Pepsi, Monika Ribar at Swiss logistics group Panalpina and Mia Brunell at Swedish investment company Kinnevik.

But Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam, professors at the University of Exeter in the U.K., sound a note of caution over recent executive appointments. They found in a 2005 study of FTSE 100 companies that women were significantly more likely than men to be appointed to boards of poorly performing companies, most often in a bid to use these relatively rare promotions to signal a major change of direction in policy. Charged with tricky turnarounds, these women find their positions more precarious. Having broken through the glass ceiling, the academics note, women often find themselves perched atop a “glass cliff.”

Female executives also face a lot of old prejudices. Last year, Catalyst, a consultancy, polled 935 alumni of Swiss business school IMD — most of whom, both male and female, identified themselves as managers — and found that they held clear stereotypical views of the relative strengths of male and female leaders. Women were thought to outperform men at supporting others, or “taking care,” while men were seen as more effective problem solvers with a knack for influencing superiors, or “taking charge.”

Verluyten of Umicore experienced the effects of this type of thinking first hand. After winning the promotion to her first CFO post, at Mobistar, “there was a lot of resistance,” she recalls. “I have a different style of influencing than most men, and in the beginning my finance organization saw this as a sign of weakness.” It took six months to establish her style within the culture of the department, she says, after which it “ran like a train.” Her finance team won awards in Belgium and her reputation as CFO grew. After announcing her move to Umicore, analyst Pierre-Antoine Machelon of Exane BNP Paribas published an alert on Mobistar, noting that the departure of “highly regarded” Verluyten was “not good news” for the company.

Push and Pull

Now in her seventh year as CFO of a large, listed company, Verluyten is one of the longest-serving female finance chiefs in Europe. Against all of the hardship, she says, one factor that has aided her rise to the top is the fact that she is not married and doesn’t have children.

“Successful businesswomen often don’t have breaks or part-time arrangements,” notes Hamori of the Instituto de Empresa. But according to the New York-based Center for Work-Life Policy, around 40 percent of women step off the career ladder at some point, most often driven by “pull” factors, such as having children or caring for a parent, rather than “push” factors, such as career-related stress or unhappiness. More than 90 percent of women who “off-ramp” want to return to work, although only 75 percent eventually do, with 40 percent making it back to full-time employment.

Helen Jesson, the London-based CFO for the international operations of Pitney Bowes, a $5.7 billion (€4.3 billion) U.S. office-equipment maker, provides a good example of the juggling act required for working mothers to reach the upper echelons of finance. After working at KPMG and then the Hilton Group in the U.K., she joined food group United Biscuits, taking up finance jobs in the Netherlands and Belgium, where she had her first child in 1999. Due to a heavy workload, she went on maternity leave for only six weeks before returning to work, while her husband, an engineer, took a sabbatical to stay at home with their daughter.

Upon finishing her assignment in Belgium, Jesson decided to leave United Biscuits before the birth of her second daughter. “I was keen to spend a reasonable length of time with my second child,” she says, though the year she spent out of the workforce was longer than she initially anticipated. “Both financially and emotionally, it suited both [my husband and I] to go back to work,” she says. Since moving back the to U.K., Jesson’s husband has worked part-time while she spent three years as deputy CFO of ESAB, a London-based welding and cutting machinery maker, as well as a year as an interim executive running a global treasury project at sub-sea oil and gas group, Acergy.

Last summer, Pitney Bowes came calling with a major job offer: to lead the finance department for its billion-dollar international unit, covering 27 countries on three continents. Due to the time and travel commitments, “my husband and I had long, serious discussions before we decided whether I would take the job,” Jesson, 43, recalls.

In October, she accepted the offer, but on her own terms. Pitney Bowes agreed with Jesson that she works the normal — that is, long — hours from Monday to Thursday, and spends Fridays at home, walking her girls to school in the morning and working a shorter day from her home office. “It was never up for debate,” Jesson says. “The company had no problem with it. There was just a nod of the head and the interviews carried on.”

Support Structure

Jesson’s case provides evidence of companies showing an increasing willingness to help executives achieve a work-life balance. Avivah Wittenberg-Cox compares women in business today to second-generation immigrants. “The first generation were pioneers, learning to speak a new language and adapt to a new culture,” says the Paris-based managing partner of consultancy Diafora and founder of the European Professional Women’s Network. “Now, there are a lot of us, and we’ve adapted as much as we’re going to. It’s the companies that now have to adapt if they want to optimize this talent pool.”

For her part, Evelyne Sevin, a partner at recruiter Egon Zehnder in Paris, says that when companies make an effort to adapt to the work-life requirements of working mothers, they are rewarded with more loyalty compared with male recruits.

The first hurdle, however, is getting a fair crack at a promotion. “Executives choose candidates in their own image,” notes Susan Vinnicombe, director of the Centre for Women Business Leaders at Cranfield. “It’s not done maliciously, but promotion processes at the top definitely disadvantage women.”

It’s a situation that troubles Jesson of Pitney Bowes, as does the fact that women often have a different way of selling their CVs than their male counterparts, a fact often lost on corporate recruiters. “Even if a woman leads a project, she still says, ‘We delivered’ a result, whereas a man might well stress that ‘I’ delivered,” she observes. “Unless employers are aware of the differences in communication style, they don’t hear what women have actually accomplished.”

But corporate efforts alone aren’t enough to propel more women into the executive ranks. Women who have made it to the top of the ladder have an important role to play, offering advice to those still climbing. “If a woman coming through the ranks doesn’t have a mentor, a role model who’s successfully juggling personal and professional responsibilities, it’s difficult to progress — even if a bunch of men are encouraging you,” says Sarah Hunt, managing director of recruiter EquityFD in London.

Verluyten credits a female mentor early in her career, the head of corporate planning at Raychem, with “proving to me that a woman can have an impact on a company without adjusting to a male style.” Now, Verluyten is able to be a mentor herself, and is helping to set up a networking group for women at Umicore.

“What hampers most women is a lack of awareness of their situation, so they are not given the flexibility necessary to balance work and family,” Verluyten says. In some areas of finance, however, rigid deadlines make this sort of accommodating arrangement difficult. “At the year-end close, if you’re in consolidation, there is no flexibility,” she adds. That’s why she recently advised a senior member of her team, who wants to have a baby, to move to a more flexible, project-based job in Umicore’s finance department.

After watching too many “absolutely superior professionals” reluctantly drop out of the workforce over the course of her career, Verluyten is open to any new ideas that encourage more women to break into the executive ranks. “But we can’t tell women that it will be easy,” she says. “I work for a metals company. It’s a man’s world. It’s always going to be hard.”

Eastern Promise

In the early 1980s, when Nevenka Cerovsky started her career in the accounting department of a bakery company in Zagreb, in communist Yugoslavia, “there were more open doors for women” than there are today, she says. “Now that we have adopted the business principles of the west, there appears to be a glass ceiling.”

Cerovsky is one of the few women to be found in the executive ranks of Europe’s former communist-block countries, and was the first Croatian woman to win the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development’s Women in Business award last year.

Back in 1996, she broke new ground for Balkan companies by taking Pliva, a Croatian pharmaceuticals firm, public on the London Stock Exchange — a period she relished. “The top post in finance requires a lot of public engagement, which women are not always prepared to take,” she notes. “This is not the case for me. I like to be in front of investors; I like to do deals; I like the capital markets.” Yet she was always aware of her minority status — she used to hold meetings twice a year with the heads of the firm’s 21 subsidiaries, who were all men. And while she never felt anything less than “an equal partner” among these colleagues, she admits it was a “funny situation” given the prevailing trends.

Now at Atlantic, a privately held consumer-goods distributor, she recently left the CFO post to concentrate on developing an investor relations strategy in preparation for a potential IPO.

Whether building up a team in finance or in IR, however, she insists that she doesn’t allow gender to influence hiring decisions. However, she does admit that “men and women solve problems in different ways. The most creative teams are always mixed.”

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