That’s not surprising, considering that the CFO is typically the CEO’s closest confidant, and CEOs want to feel very comfortable with the person they choose for that role. At least that’s how many women see it: according to women in CFO’s survey, the nature of the CFO/CEO relationship is the biggest obstacle to becoming CFO.
“Boards can do a lot for women and minorities, but for diversity to really become embedded, it takes the CEO,” says Cheryl Beebe, CFO of Corn Products International. She says few women graced the executive suites of the Chicago-based agriculture concern until the current CEO, Samuel Scott, took the reins in 2001. Beebe credits her own promotion from treasurer to the fact that Scott, who is African-American, is better able to “get away from group think” in hiring.
Men who have previously worked for women also seem more inclined to hire them, notes Stephanie Kushner, CFO of Federal Signal. When she served on the board of Hydro One, an Ontario-based energy company, four years ago, the chairman had previously worked for former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. As a result, he “decided to appoint women to many senior positions,” she says, including CEO and CFO. Another factor, says CDW’s Klein: “Men who have daughters in the workforce seem to be much more aware of the issues facing women.”
More than overt discrimination, women point to a lack of the right experience. “Women are not given the opportunity to prepare for the top roles,” says Deborah Soon of research firm Catalyst. “They are relegated to certain leadership behaviors, like building teams, and not given a chance at others, like leading teams.” In finance, the gaps may also be functional: staying on a treasurer path without getting controller skills, or becoming a controller without learning operations. About one-fifth of female respondents cited lack of operations experience as a disadvantage.
It is easy to prove that such experience helps. As fresh-fruit controller for Dole Food Co., Office Depot’s McKay had to know operations intimately in order to decide where to ship bananas and pineapples before they spoiled. A later posting as corporate controller gave her a chance to work on external reporting and global financial planning. She subsequently joined a former boss at Florida-based AutoNation as senior vice president of finance, where she had responsibility for treasury. Ultimately, McKay landed her first CFO role at Restoration Hardware in 2003. “It takes a bit to be able to step into this chair,” she says.
For the women who stay at one company, the key is to keep moving around within that company. After a stint as a Wall Street analyst, Marianne Parrs joined International Paper’s treasury department in 1974 managing pension assets, knowing that “to be challenged and satisfied I’d have to have a diversity of roles.” After moving to other spots in treasury, she ran investor relations for three years and corporate communications for another four — “a major career milestone, because I learned I could do something I didn’t know anything about,” she recalls. Parrs went on to become controller of a business unit in 1985, and head of the tax department before becoming CFO in 1995. She later became executive vice president-administration, but returned to the CFO role when it opened up last year. “When you’re talking about senior jobs, you need intellectual and technical capability. But what increasingly makes the difference are leadership competencies,” says Parrs.