Power Struggle

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

Harker says many of the women she’s talked with about the issue are worried that once they have a child, they won’t be able to put in the long hours required in finance, whether working on a deal, preparing for an audit, or finishing the monthly close. Because they can’t figure out a way to work less, they may choose to leave. “I have long counseled people not to opt themselves out,” she says. “There’s a lot of progress to be made careerwise if you’re here, if you’re present. As an employer, I don’t want to lose you, your skill set, and the investment the company has made in you.”

Harker, who has three children, says she has urged women to consider job sharing and has even implemented multiple shifts in extreme situations, such as when she was overseeing the massive financial-restatement project at MCI in 2003. “If you try to come back after three to five years, not only are you economically compromised, but you are perceived as having a skill set that is stale,” she says.

But even when the company is willing to work out a flexible arrangement, the workload can prove overwhelming for a new mother returning to a finance job. DiCicco says she has worked with many “superstellar” women over the years who struggled to balance work with family early in their careers. “I don’t mean to say that it can’t work,” she says. “But I think some women end up saying it’s too complicated. It is extremely, extremely difficult.” DiCicco, who also has three children, adds, “Sometimes you think your head is going to pop off. You have to really want it.” (For a related view, see “Every Day Is Different.”)

Women who have made it to the top acknowledge that they have made deliberate decisions and tremendous sacrifices to get there. Hamilton worked remotely during her six-week maternity leave after the birth of her first child because she was a divisional CFO at another company at the time. ”I was the right-hand person to the president,” she says. “I couldn’t just say, ‘Hey, you’re on your own. Here are a couple of phone numbers.’” She returned to work just 10 weeks after having her second child to begin her new job as controller at Marsh. “You have to make sacrifices to be on equal footing with your male counterparts,” says Hamilton.

Gen Y to the Rescue?
Many barriers faced by women in finance should erode over time, as each new generation enters the workforce to find slightly more women holding senior roles. Indeed, many finance executives are pinning their hopes on generational change. Writes one male survey respondent: “I believe the age of [men on] corporate boards and executive teams perpetuates this low percentage of women holding CFO jobs. There are certain generations that don’t accept women at this level of business leadership.”


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