Replenishing Stock

Female executives want more challenges and more support.
Janet Kersnar and Alix StuartJuly 7, 2008

When Kristi Matus started at United Services Automobile Association (USAA) as vice president of its life insurance business in 2002, little did she know that she would one day join an elite club of executives. After moving into the CFO office at the Texas-based firm in January this year, she became one of only ten women appointed to the top finance job at a Fortune 500 company over the past year. Currently only 8% of CFO posts at Fortune 500 companies are held by women — yet another reminder of how female finance chiefs are few and far between.

As the war for talent intensifies, what can companies do to give women a better chance of joining the C-suite? This was a question posed earlier this year by two American organisations — Catalyst and the Families and Work Institute — as part of research which polled more than 8,000 senior and budding executives, both male and female, in seven countries, in order to understand how to attract and retain high-flyers. Contrary to popular belief, explains Eleanor Tabi Haller-Jorden of Catalyst, “both men and women prioritise their values and goals almost identically.” More specifically, the top values among both male and female respondents were having “a challenging job” and “a supportive workplace,” ranking ahead of “being well compensated” and “a good work-life balance.”

But the research did identify an important difference between the sexes. More women than men criticise their employers for failing to match these values with job assignments and the general workplace environment. The overall conclusion among the survey’s female respondents was that they have less supportive colleagues and less challenging jobs than their male peers.

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Female high-flyers shouldn’t wait around for employers to improve their skills in recognising top talent, according to the current generation of female CFOs. As the CVs of the women who have made it to the top show, the climb up the corporate ladder often involves seizing opportunities such as overseas assignments or, as Matus did, volunteering for committees to develop knowledge and bolster networks. And if such strategies don’t work, don’t wait around, says Elyse Douglas, CFO of Hertz Global Holdings, another Fortune 500 company. “If you’re not being challenged by your current company,” she counsels, “look elsewhere.”

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