The Chosen Few

Although women have been pouring into finance for decades, only a small number ever make it to the top.

“I had to make a choice,” recalls Martine Verluyten. “Was I going to remain eternally in the background, or would I fight to become CFO?”

She faced this decision shortly before her 50th birthday, after a long and varied business career. Rising through the ranks as an auditor — one of only two women in the firm at the time — she was put off accountancy as a long-term career option when, during a performance review, an incredulous (male) manager scoffed at the notion of her becoming the first female partner in continental Europe.

Shortly after that meeting, Verluyten packed up her desk and moved to Raychem, an electronics company, working for more than 20 years in a variety of finance posts in Europe and the U.S., “but never very close to the CFO role,” she notes. In 2000, she joined Mobistar, a fast-growing Belgian mobile-phone company, as deputy CFO. When the incumbent CFO left six months after she arrived, it was the first time she faced a realistic shot at the top finance post. She knew, however, that her promotion from second-in-command would not come easy. After all, there were very few female finance chiefs at companies of Mobistar’s size in Belgium — or anywhere else in Europe, for that matter — at the time. And Verluyten had not forgotten that fateful performance review at the audit firm.

After a “hard-fought struggle,” Verluyten convinced Mobistar’s board to appoint her as CFO, a post she kept for six years. In June 2006, she moved to Brussels-based Umicore, a €9 billion specialty metals group, also as CFO. She’s now one of only two female CFOs at a company in Belgium’s blue-chip BEL 20 index. (The other is Anne Vleminckx at imaging systems company Agfa-Gevaert.)

But compared with other European countries, Belgium is awash with female finance chiefs. Currently there are no female CFOs in Germany’s DAX 30 or France’s CAC 40, while just two have made it into the U.K.’s benchmark FTSE 100 index — Jann Brown of oil and gas group Cairn Energy and Helen Weir of bank Lloyds TSB. Weir also holds the honor of being the only female CFO among the 100 largest companies in Europe. Female finance executives fare slightly better on the other side of the Atlantic. Nine of the U.S.’s 100 largest companies currently have female CFOs.

The paucity of female finance chiefs in Europe is puzzling given the steady flow of women into finance over the past few decades. Women now account for more than half of university graduates in the EU, and around 30 percent of chartered accountants and MBAs. What’s more, nearly a third of corporate managerial jobs in the EU are filled by women. Beyond middle management, however, the trends change. Just over 8 percent of European corporate board members are women, with most occupying non-executive director roles. The percentage of women who make it to Europe’s top executive posts can be counted with a single hand, often with fingers to spare. By contrast, 16.5 percent of the members of US boards are women, as are 15 percent of the members of executive committees, according to Ricol, Lasteyrie & Associés, a Paris-based consultancy.

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