Power Struggle

Will the recession short-circuit women's advancement to the top spot in finance?

Of course, the path to the top job is narrow for men and women alike. Ann Ziegler, a former mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer who now heads up finance at office-technology supplier CDW, says there are many qualified women in the second tier of finance leadership (as treasurers and controllers and heads of financial planning), but notes that the four or five people reporting to the CFO ultimately get funneled down to just one person at the next level. “Those top jobs have to open up,” she says. “And then you have to be in the right place at the right time.”

Still, the issue of women’s progress through the finance ranks strikes a chord with both men and women. Nearly 500 finance executives responded to CFO’s survey on the topic, and many proposed their own theories for the shortage of women in the top job. Those theories generally fell into one of two categories: structural barriers or biases in favor of men, and women’s struggle to balance work and family.

Beyond the Glass Ceiling

One quarter of women responding to the survey either strongly agreed or somewhat agreed that a glass ceiling for women exists in their companies’ finance departments. That’s a significant decline from the 40% who held that view when CFO last asked the question, in 2006 (the percentage of men who believe there is a glass ceiling declined as well, from 10% to 4%). But many finance executives said that women continue to bump up against something, if not many things, in their efforts to rise to the top.

One is tenure. Women have been in the workforce in significant numbers for only a few decades, and it takes time to rise through the ranks. Establishing networks and finding influential mentors, two widely cited keys to business success, can require years of effort. Still, some observers think women in finance haven’t progressed rapidly enough. “You’d think we might have come further than we have,” says Janice DiPietro, a former Big Four partner who is now a managing partner at executive-services firm Tatum. “I don’t think we’re catching up as quickly as you might have expected by now.”

A related barrier is that the vast majority of CEOs are men, and men hold most board of director seats. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that they wouldn’t hire a woman, “having a woman in the CFO role requires the CEO to be comfortable with that,” says Marsh’s Hamilton. “Some men are very comfortable with it, and some aren’t.” Marsh’s parent company, Marsh & McLennan Cos. (MMC), hired a female CFO last year, one of the additions to the Fortune 500 list. Marsh’s new global controller is also a woman. “The chairman and CEO of MMC is definitely committed to a diverse executive-management team, which is encouraging,” says Hamilton.

Pamela Craig, CFO of global business-services firm Accenture, says more executives need to make that kind of commitment to significantly increase the number of women at the top of the profession. “Lots of men are always going to be qualified. If you want to move the needle, you need people who are committed to making a change,” she says. “Boards need to believe that diversity is important. The fact that we had three women on our board helped me [get the CFO job]. I don’t think it was big, but I think it was there.”

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