Lynn Calpeter had to choose. At 34, a veteran of General Electric’s elite Financial Management Program (FMP), she was offered a shot at the brass ring: the CFO slot at GE’s plastics division in Europe, a seat Keith Sherin had occupied before becoming CFO of GE Corp. But moving to Europe would mean Calpeter could no longer help care for her father, who suffers from multiple sclerosis. Until the night before she had to make her decision, Calpeter admits, she was “distraught.” The big question: Would refusing a promotion for the sake of family knock her off the fast-track?
Calpeter’s dilemma is one that confronts many women in senior management. As they approach the top, the pull between work and life — caring for parents, raising children, making time for a spouse — seems to tug harder at women than at men. Balancing the two often means shortchanging one or the other.
Some women do manage that balancing act, although they remain relatively rare. Fewer than 10 percent of CFOs in either the Fortune 500 or the Fortune 1,000 are women. Drop down a notch to controller, treasurer, and tax director, and the numbers increase to about 20 percent of the Fortune 500. From the glass-is-half-full perspective, the 35 female CFOs in the Fortune 500 represent a 350 percent gain from 1995, the first year CFO magazine conducted the survey, when only 10 women held the title.
On the other hand, women have been pouring into the finance pipeline for decades. For more than 20 years they have outnumbered men in undergraduate and graduate accounting programs, and comprise the majority of new hires by public accounting firms. For the past decade, they have earned 30 to 40 percent of all MBAs. From that perspective, the drop-off at the top is dramatic.
Whether these statistics prove the existence of a glass ceiling depends on who you ask. Eighty-three percent of men think it doesn’t, according to CFO’s recent survey of finance executives. Only 44 percent of women agree. Virtually no one thinks women lack the skills or talent for the CFO job. But as Marianne Parrs, CFO of International Paper, puts it, “There’s something going on out there for sure; it’s just not at all clear to me what it is.” It’s not clear to us either, but based on both the survey and anecdotal evidence, it seems that women either choose better balance over a full-on grab for the brass ring — or have that choice very subtly made for them.
Compared with CEOs, it can be argued that CFOs boast more than their share of female superstars. Take, for example, Citigroup’s Sallie Krawcheck, the highest-ranking female CFO in the Fortune 500. Just over 10 years ago, Krawcheck, 41, left her job as an investment banker to be a stay-at-home mother. Within a year, though, she realized she was “really bad at it.” She reinvented herself as an equity analyst at Sanford Bernstein, which eventually appointed her CEO. Thanks in large part to her outspokenness there, Citigroup CEO Sandy Weill tapped her to head up his Smith Barney division in 2003 — at the height of investor concerns about conflicts between research and investment banking. In November 2004, she became CFO. With her husband, a banker who went part-time when she took Weill’s offer, and two babysitters helping her raise the kids, Krawcheck says she feels no guilt about her 80-to-90-hour workweeks. “Because I stayed home for a while, I don’t question now whether my family would be better off if I were there,” says Krawcheck, who made nearly $10 million last year.