Susannah Swihart was in midsentence when the sound first went off. The CFO and recently named vice chairman of $71.4 billion (in assets) BankBoston Corp. was describing the bank’s recent internal-fraud troubles for a group of journalists when the steady beep, beep filled the room. “Oh, that’s my daughter’s Tamagotchi,” she said. “I’m supposed to be taking care of it today. But I think it just died.”
Swihart calmly switched off the electronic toy and, after a hearty laugh, returned to the business at hand. Like many other female CFOs, Swihart is extremely comfortable in a role that not too many years ago was accessible to only a handful of women. But as the Tamagotchi incident shows, she also believes being CFO doesn’t mean forgetting she is a woman, or a parent for that matter.
Swihart’s ease can be partly attributed to the fact that she doesn’t have to play pioneer anymore. Whereas only 10 women held the CFO post at a Fortune 500 company in 1995 (see “Uncommon Women,” August 1995), 23 now have the title, according to a survey conducted by CFO magazine. And 7 of those 23 act as CFO at Fortune 100 companies: Heidi Miller, executive vice president and CFO of $38 billion Travelers Group (soon-to-be CFO of the combined Citigroup); Marie L. Knowles, executive vice president and CFO of $25.3 billion Atlantic Richfield; Judy C. Lewent, senior vice president and CFO of $23.6 billion Merck; Judith Sprieser, senior vice president and CFO of $20 billion Sara Lee; Pamela K. Knous, executive vice president and CFO of $16.5 billion SuperValu; Karen Hoguet, senior vice president and CFO of $15.7 billion Federated Department Stores; and Marianne Parrs, senior vice president and CFO of $14.1 billion International Paper.
For Swihart and the others, the 130 percent increase in Fortune 500 female CFOs can be attributed to several factors — progressive corporate policies, cultural changes, gender-sensitive recruiting, more women forcing their way up the finance pipeline, and the sheer demand for finance talent. Says Chad Gifford, CEO of BankBoston, “I didn’t choose her because she’s a woman, although I do appreciate the diversity she adds. I didn’t give a hoot that she’s a woman. Maybe that I didn’t care is a subtle message about how things have changed. It’s a competitive world, and to get the best people you have to look beyond white males.”
That attitude is apparent at all levels of finance. Sixty-six of the Fortune 500 companies, in fact, now have female treasurers, compared with 63 in 1995, and 53 have female controllers, compared with 35 three years ago. In addition, the women are being recognized for their talents in the most obvious way possible — their paychecks. Of the 23 female CFOs in the Fortune 500, 9 are listed among the top five wage earners at their firms, with an average salary and bonus of $653,612.
Still, the gains have to be put in context. While a 130 percent increase is undoubtedly cause for optimism, female executives are quick to point out that they make up less than 5 percent of Fortune 500 CFOs. “It’s like earnings at small firms,” says Susan Koski-Grafer, vice president of professional development and technical activities at the Financial Executives Institute, a professional association of senior financial executives, in Morristown, New Jersey. “It’s easy to double when the numbers are small.” The numbers are also less impressive when they are extrapolated out into the Fortune 1,000. There, only 37 women hold the position of CFO, up from 24 in 1995 — an indication, say some observers, that the less “public” public firms may not be as focused on diversity. Overall, while most observers are pleased with the steady progress being made, many, like Irene Esteves, CFO of money-management firm Putnam Investments Inc., in Boston, believe “it will be 10 years, at least, before we see a major shift in the number of female executives.”