Power Struggle

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

Most survey respondents said that while their companies value gender diversity among executives in the finance department, achieving such diversity is not a priority. A significant majority of companies have neither a diversity task force nor a mentoring program for women. Slightly fewer than half provide diversity training for managers.

Some observers say the turbulence in the markets could make women more appealing CFO candidates, given the more risk-averse management style frequently attributed to female executives. Collaboration and communication, two other commonly cited strengths, could also prove valuable in a business cycle marked by restructuring and layoffs. But others maintain that the risk aversion now pervading many boards presents a new obstacle to women’s chances. The desire to pick a known quantity, particularly in the crucial role of the CFO, by definition limits the chances of a woman landing the job, since there just aren’t as many high-ranking women to choose from.

“There’s a bit of a numbers game going on,” says DiPietro. “If you’re bringing on a new CFO at a Fortune 500 company, you’re going to look at a very senior executive from another Fortune 500. If you’re selecting from that same pool over and over, things aren’t going to change very much.”

“The number of people available today is such that companies can pick and choose,” says Harker of AES. “Why wouldn’t you hire someone with the most closely aligned experience? Unfortunately for women, that universe is mostly white and male.”

The Burden of Balance

Another major factor slowing women’s progress to the CFO post is one that many successful female executives have been hesitant to discuss: motherhood. “I hate raising this in 2009, but the reality is that women still bear the brunt of the child-rearing responsibility, and that remains a very significant reason why women get off the career track or alter their career path,” says DiPietro. “And there is a correlation between those years and the ones that are pivotal to one’s career.”

CFO’s survey respondents agree. Nearly a quarter of those who gave reasons for women’s slow progress to the C-suite mentioned issues of work and family balance as a stumbling block. One study, by Columbia’s Center for Work-Life Policy, found that women in business lose 28% of their earning power when they temporarily leave their jobs.

Either by choice or because of some subtle pressure, many women starting on the finance path in their 20s step off in their 30s. Hamilton of Marsh says many of her friends from business school (at the University of Chicago) and former colleagues from KPMG took time off to have children and are now struggling to get back into the workplace, a proposition that has always been challenging but is now vastly more so given the economic climate. “There was a lot of discussion a couple of years ago about ‘on-ramping,’ helping moms who were at home to get back into the workforce, and that’s gone away,” says Hamilton. “Right now no one is thinking about on-site daycare and job-sharing.” DiPietro puts it bluntly: “In an economy like this, anything that makes you a little bit different doesn’t help.”

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