The CFO gender gap: part one

The CFO gender gap: part one

What's stopping women from reaching the top? CFO World speaks to two top finance women about gender bias and barriers to senior leadership roles

It’s an issue that continues to loom over the industry: the lack of women reaching the top of the finance ladder. The industry has long recognised the need to change its male-dominated image. However, there are still barriers for women yet to be broken down.

Men still outweigh women both in top finance roles and also in pay. According to a December 2012 study published by the Australian Financial Review, the average remuneration of the 10 highest paid female CFOs was $1.37 million, less than a third of the average $4.39m for men. Even average pay for CFOs in ASX listed companies, men earn an average of $739,436 and women $585,663.

According to AFR’s 2012 salaries survey, there is only one woman (Karen Moses, CFO of Origin Energy) who makes the top 10 highest paid CFOs in Australia and she is at number nine.

According to the CFO of Coca Cola Amatil, Nessa O’Sullivan, who is currently one of the highest paid female CFOs in Australia, there are two main reasons why there’s such a gender gap: firstly, women tend to find reasons to justify a pay gap rather than challenge it; and secondly, they don’t demand the recognition for their contributions and commensurate pay. She claims some women wait to be recognised for their efforts rather than take control of the agenda and ensure the value they add is recognised.

Gender bias around leadership capabilities is another reason why women are not accessing senior leadership roles, says O’Sullivan, and this still exists in the finance industry at the executive level. Because not many women are making it to top finance positions, plenty of people are not used to seeing women in traditionally male dominated roles and this can inadvertently lead to a lack of acceptance of women in high-level leadership roles, she says.

“There is a proven bias of people to recruit people like themselves and I believe many organisations pay lip service to diversity rather than addressing the root cause and cultural barriers preventing women from succeeding and getting access to leadership roles,” O’Sullivan says.

Fiona Robertson, non-executive director of Drillsearch, has spent about 20 years in the CFO role for various resources companies. She claims this “unconscious bias” can lead to women getting “sidelined in middle management”, decreasing the number of females from going through to top leadership positions.

“One has to actually push against those and look at people for their outputs and their capability, rather than the way they present themselves or the way they speak or the way they come across,” she continues.

“Unless, we overcome this dropout rate of women from middle management, you aren’t going to change the numbers at senior management level. You have to have a pool or a pipeline of suitably qualified women coming through the middle ranks successfully.”

Citing Creating a positive cycle: Critical steps to achieving gender parity in Australia, Robertson highlights a point in the publication that some people have conventional views about what makes a good leader based on certain traits. If a woman doesn't demonstrate these traits, she is often viewed as unfit for an executive leadership role.

Traits that might be viewed as weaknesses for a woman working in a group of men start with being softly spoken, deliberative/weighing up alternatives as opposed to immediately adopting a position, and an inclination to be consultative and consensus driven in decision-making rather than dictating how something might be done, Robertson says.

“If you imagine being out with a group of friends and someone suggests moving onto a restaurant for dinner: do you think you would have more influence on the choice of restaurant if you were the only female in a group of six to eight men, or if you were one half of a group of three to four couples?” she asks. “My experience is that the decision might take longer among the group of couples but it would more likely be a consensus decision, whereas in the former situation one of the guys would come out with a suggestion and that would be the decision - no debate entered into.”

Inflexible working hours is also a barrier for women going through the ranks to top finance roles, says Robertson, particularly at ASX-listed companies. Although both men and women have family responsibilities, women who move up to more senior roles and are at a stage in their life where they want to start a family can often feel they have to choose one or the other to make it work.

“In smaller companies the time demand is less and it can be easier for a woman to be able to manage that type of role and blend it with family responsibilities,” she claims. “I don’t know if you can turn an ASX 50 CFO role into a family friendly role. You just can’t do that. But if you have somebody who is on track, who has the capacity to be an ASX top 50 CFO, there are roles they could take on during the course of their middle management years that wouldn’t necessarily require them to be working a 60- to 70-hour week.

“We need to be more creative in the way we structure roles so that both males and females can remain in the workforce in positions appropriate to their abilities and experience but also give them a chance to maintain their family obligations.”

O’Sullivan, however, claims the family or career choice and parenthood does not “come anywhere close to justifying the gender gap at more senior levels”. “In traditionally male dominated positions like CEO and CFO, the gap is even more pronounced than in other senior level roles in marketing and HR, which do have better representation of women," she says.

There are still areas of business where it is seen as “being a ‘boys club’ with many formal and informal barriers to women”, O’Sullivan continues, and organisations need to actively address gender bias and put in place development programs to help grow female talent.

“To change the poor representation of women at senior levels, women need to take more risk and back themselves to take on bigger roles and actively challenge the status quo more often,” she adds.

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Tags finance careersCFO womenFiona Robertsongender biasfinance industryfinance leadersCFO Nessa O’Sullivan

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