The Perils of Flextime

Flexible work arrangements are popular, but they may exact a price – particularly from women who hope to become CFOs.

In short, the “mommy track” may have gotten wider, with more companies offering more kinds of flexibility to working mothers, but it may also be diverging more than ever from the path to the top. “It’s kind of the unspoken rule,” says one female CFO of a midsize, publicly traded company who did not want to be identified. “Quite honestly, you have to be present to be really involved at the highest level of the business and to be eligible for career-advancement opportunities.”

No Phoning It In

One thing most CFOs agree on is that once you reach the top, flexible schedules aren’t an option. “When it’s the end of the quarter, I’m here from 6:30 in the morning until 9:30 at night, and I can’t believe any other CFO doesn’t do the same thing,” says Ron Fior, CFO of sales performance management company Callidus Software. Adds Darlene Deptula-Hicks, CFO of medical-device maker iCAD: “When significant events happen, like equity raises or acquisitions, you need to be available for the impromptu changes that often occur. Can you accomplish that remotely? Probably not.”

Flexible arrangements “are not part of the conversation” in finance executive searches for large public companies, says Thomas Kolder, an executive recruiter with Crist/Kolder Associates. “It’s effectively assumed that your work hours are going to be over the top,” particularly with travel and a relationship with operations as major components of the job these days.

Even at small nonpublic organizations, which ostensibly have fewer deadlines and little or no investor scrutiny, the CFO can cross flexible work arrangements off the perks list. In a recent CFO search for a small nonprofit museum, for example, several candidates, both male and female, expressed interest in either flexible stop/start times or regularly working from home, says Damian Zikakis, a managing director at Boyden Global Executive Search. The museum, however, said it wasn’t possible, other than occasional exceptions for specific events.

The all-or-nothing nature of the top finance post may explain why a certain ceiling seems to be establishing itself regarding how often women hold the CFO post. Just 9% of Fortune 500 CFOs are women, according to CFO’s recent analysis, up only a hair from last year and the two preceding years (see the chart below). The current figure is remarkably consistent across publicly traded companies of all sizes. An analysis of the CFO Midcap 1500 index — publicly traded companies with revenues of $100 million to $1 billion — finds that women hold the top finance post at 9.6% of companies ranked 1–500, 8.8% of companies ranked 501–1,000, and 9.0% of companies ranked 1,001–1,500.

Recruiters say there are various reasons why women occupy fewer than 10% of CFO positions. One is that boards are eager to hire CFOs who have held the title before, making the numbers somewhat “self-perpetuating,” says Ellen Williams, an executive recruiter with Korn/Ferry International. But it’s also not unusual for women to select themselves out of such roles, she notes, by declining to move or to work excessive hours.

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