Human Capital & Careers

Women CFOs Earn $215,000 Less

A thorough study of finance chiefs at U.S. public companies shows that total compensation for the average male is 16% higher.
David McCannApril 3, 2012

Hopes for bridging the gender gap in compensation for finance executives are still not close to being realized, at least in the profession’s top echelon. A comprehensive study of CFO pay at public companies in 2011 reports that male finance chiefs earned, on average, 16.3% more than their female counterparts.

The study controlled for a number of factors known to affect CFO pay, including company size, market capitalization, age, and tenure in the position. “If gender still plays a significant role in predicting pay, even after you account for all those other factors, it demonstrates that gender pay equality has not been achieved,” says the study’s lead author, Tom White, director of quantitative research for GMI Ratings. GMI was formed in 2010 by the merger of two corporate-governance advisory and research firms, The Corporate Library and GovernanceMetrics.

Released yesterday, the report factored in data for companies in the Russell 3000 Index that had market capitalizations of between $100 million and $25 billion. There were very few women CFOs at companies above and below that range (though the report did not suggest any reasons why), so they were omitted so as not to skew the results. Within the parameters, only 8% of companies had women running the finance function, but that was still enough for a statistically meaningful sample. Also omitted were CFOs for whom there was incomplete data; for instance, if a CFO was new to a company such that compensation information was missing, or a person’s age was not known, that person was dropped from the database. In the end, the survey looked at a total of about 1,900 CFOs.

Part of the study took an innovative tack. The conventional approach would be to identify statistically significant differences in compensation between the genders and then break down the sample into smaller groups, controlling for other variables to see if the disparity persisted. GMI did the reverse, looking to see if it was possible to predict gender based on how people were paid.

The results, though not overwhelming, were significant. The model the researchers built correctly predicted the gender of CFOs in the sample 62% of the time. “Given that any model would randomly be correct 50% of the time, 62% is not necessarily that impressive,” the authors wrote. “However, we were simply trying to demonstrate that a model that includes CFO compensation is predictive of CFO gender.”

But that model didn’t speak to the size of the pay differential, so the researchers created a different model designed to predict compensation while using gender as one of the input variables. The result showed that an average female CFO would have earned $215,000 more if she were male, representing a 16.3% pay hike.

The authors speculated that reasons for the differential may include gender differences in career path and work histories. “For example, it is possible that women are more likely than men to advance through promotion from within a single company,” says co-author Kimberly Gladman, GMI’s director of research and risk. “Many firms tend to pay more when making outside hires, which could lower women’s compensation levels.”

Also, the report noted, it is possible that female CFOs have shorter work histories, even when they are the same age as men, because they are more likely than men to interrupt their careers to bear and care for children.

The authors urged caution in evaluating the study results. Perhaps there was something unique to 2011 that exaggerated the pay differential. But that cuts both ways; it’s also possible that by chance the dataset minimized the income gap when compared with historical levels.

But White tells CFO that a future study he’s planning could settle once and for all whether there is gender discrimination in CFO pay. The mission would be to track people’s year-to-year compensation movements after they took a finance-chief post. “That would be harder to refute,” he says, though there would still be variables to factor in, like company performance.

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