The CFO Pathway & Gender Disparity

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How the evolution of time, mindset and equality will naturally and gradually decrease the gender gap along the CFO Pathway

Eton Bridge Partners recently published CFO Pathways, our analysis of research into the appointments of CFOs in 2019 and 2020 in the UK. Lizzy Caselton,  Associate Partner in our Interim Management, CFO & Finance Practice discusses one of the most notable, and current findings from our analysis alongside. Speaking to newly appointed CFOs; Kay Smith, who has held her first CFO role within the past 18 months, and Mark Strickland, who reflects on his career path as a CFO to date.

There are many parallels between the conversations I had with both Kay Smith and Mark Strickland, despite the notable difference in time spent in the CFO seat. Throughout the conversations with each, it became apparent that trade-offs, personal resilience, and the ever-changing evolution of the modern world have impacted their paths to becoming a CFO.

We concluded that over time, the CFO gender gap will partially be addressed with the heightened impact of both peer and social pressures, yet there are endless hurdles and traits that individuals can also expect to overcome along the way to climb the career ladder at a pace that suits them.

The statistics read that the vast majority of new CFOs appointed in the last two years were 83% male, leaving only 17% female. This follows the general trend in the male-to-female ratio in top C-Suite positions. Looking at all publicly listed UK companies, the percentage of female CFOs is approximately 14%; this is becoming more balanced compared to historical statistics but at a very slow pace.

Whilst exploring this with both Kay and Mark, there were pronounced alignments in their thought process about their respective career paths to the CFO position:

The impact of ‘Traditional’ views:

When we look at some industries such as manufacturing, construction, or many sales-driven environments, there is a typical stereotype and traditional view towards people thinking that these roles are better suited to male-orientated individuals.

Due to many of these industries being founder-led, there is a natural and unconscious bias from those appointing the CFO position that the right person for the role, will be of equal fit to the traditional business view, and that is who will gain the maximum trust and make the most impact.

There is also a bias embedded across finance in general in regards to the role of the female, however, with organisations becoming more progressive in their approach when hiring, particularly with the ever-increasing emphasis on diversity and inclusion. These ways of traditional thinking are being rightly challenged, and the modern world is seeing a rise of females being considered in traditionally male-dominated environments

The power of ‘trade-offs’

Trade-off’s regarding time, social life, geographies, and personal emotions are natural within any progressive career pathway. Both Kay and Mark have demonstrated flexibility and resilience in regards to their geographical locations of role, and industry in which they experience.

Naturally, due to the traditional stereotypes and social pressures of ‘men being the household bread-winners’, historically men have had the ability to be more geographically disperse, enabling them to cast their nets wider in comparison to females.

Interestingly Kay has consciously chosen to work within a traditionally male-orientated environment such as broking; here she has managed to build resilience and gain a wider skillset to influentially communicate within businesses or situations where she may be more challenged due to unconscious bias.

Mark, on the other hand, has purposefully kept his industry experience more broadly to ensure a track record of continued growth and learning to add to his CV. All whilst striving to maintain ‘market applicability’ given the strong male competition within the CFO field.

Time has been a large trade-off for both Mark and Kay; they have focussed a lot of time on their career progression, noting at an early stage they wanted to be in a number one position. They both highlighted that they have made conscious and strategic career decisions to achieve their goals by setting achievable goals, but not without the struggles and challenges along the way which would only have been possible to overcome with a strong support network.

Motivation, Resilience and Support

Both Kay and Mark emphasised the positive impact of their support network, both personally and professionally, which has allowed them to grow as individuals, professionals and leaders.

Naturally, different industries require different personalities; adaptability, dominance and resilience are key to a successful CFO pathway, alongside compatibility with the wider C-suite, and the broader organisational team. Recognising when this compatibility isn’t present and making a conscious effort to either move on, or change tact will also enhance your progression.

If you do not feel people are valuing your contribution, then question why not? How can you improve and progress? If progression and learning are not achieved or supported within the organisation to help you climb your chosen ladder, then consider taking action and change direction to make your time more worthwhile – do not be scared to ask questions, and be willing to take risks.

In today’s society, there is an emphasis on changing the traditional mindsets to support equality between genders and this is increasing both in the workplace and at home. This will be paramount in the support offered within organisations to allow the rise of talented CFO’s – whether this is through flexible working initiatives, mentorship, and leadership courses. It is then your responsibility to take these opportunities as they arise.

Skillset merit vs Gender initiative

There is significant and increasing emphasis being placed on diversity and inclusion agendas within businesses, particularly when addressing their C-Suite.

In the opinion of both Mark and Kay, they have recognised when recruiting and when being promoted throughout their own career paths that they wanted to be hired on their skillset merit, not their gender. A balance and equilibrium need to be met for wider perspectives and values, yet you cannot artificially force the progression, and everyone should have equal opportunity.

To be within this competition pool for the next CFO opportunity, you must be willing and flexible to experience trade-offs (which will become easier as business views and working practices modernise), prepare yourself for potential knock-backs, and have a sufficient level of resilience to face the many hurdles that the CFO ladder may ensue.; something 2020-21 has shown us we all have to some degree!