Female CFOs are still scarce: is a lack of parity in the home holding back the impact of gender inclusion policies?

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Our recent CFO Pathways Report shows the majority of CFOs continue to be male with men accounting for 82% of total appointments. Companies are doing more than ever to drive gender diversity among their executive teams, so why aren’t we seeing an increase in female CFO appointments year-on-year?

Lynne Colgate, Partner & Head of Interim, Finance Practice at Eton Bridge Partners, explores whether the gender balance we see today is in part a reflection of past gender roles in the home. In a thought-provoking blog, she considers whether gender diversity policies are a short-term fix until we see a generation that’s ready to achieve gender parity both at home and at work. Intriguingly, the recent British Social Attitudes survey seems to back this up – just 9% of respondents said that a women’s job is to look after the home (down from 48% in 1987) but almost two-thirds of women still say they do more than their fair share of housework. It’s certainly food for thought and we hope this blog sparks some interesting reflections and constructive debate.


“Shhh your father is working”


Picture the scene. It’s 1975, the front door swings open with the father carrying a briefcase, suit and tie on – he has returned from his long, tiring day at the office.  The house is spotless, the cottage pie is bubbling in the oven, the washing is done, and clean clothes are folded ready for the morning. He settles into an armchair to read the paper in peace as his daughter helps lay the table and his son plays football outside.

Stereotypical yes, but not far from the truth for many of the current generation of CFOs who grew up in the 1970s and 80s (our CFO Pathways report found the average age of a CFO was around 50 years). Back then, for the vast majority of families, the father was the breadwinner and mother the homemaker. There were few female role models of women in business at that time and the FTSE 100 had to wait until 1991 for its first female Finance Director (Kathleen O’Donovan at BTR), and 1997 for its first female CEO (Dame Marjorie Scardino of Pearson).

Fast forward to 2023 and that generation of children are today’s executive leaders and are now reaching the pinnacle of their corporate careers. There has been a quiet evolution, if not revolution, of gender trends in top leadership positions led by these babies of the 60s and 70s.


Are D&I policies just a short-term fix?

Diversity and inclusion are not ‘nice-to haves,’ they are absolute necessities for businesses today. Stakeholders want to see a diverse leadership team and diversity drives innovation across the business.

‘A diversity of viewpoints and an open, respectful work environment encourages people to raise new ideas and test them together, good for all innovation,’ says Kate Bowyer, CFO at NDA.

Gender diversity and inclusion policies, positive hiring practices and family-friendly initiatives such as flexible working hours and shared maternity/paternity leave have had an impact. But given the steps companies have taken to recruit more female leaders, why are we not moving closer to gender parity? Is there a point at which there is little more that companies can do, and the onus shifts elsewhere?

It’s worth noting here that we are seeing more females step into leadership roles in some functions. Our recent CPO Pathways Report found that 81% of CPO appointments in the UK last year were female, up from an already high base of 71% in 2021. The CPO role is as female dominated as the CFO one is male; could it be that finance is traditionally seen as a more ‘male’ function?

In theory, there should be a large pipeline of potential female CFO candidates. According to the Financial Reporting Council (FRC), 50% of accountancy students globally in 2022 were female – a percentage that has remained roughly constant for the past decade. There are a large number of potential future female leaders coming into the funnel at the top of the system, but where do they all go? Is it conceivable that a barrier exists outside the workplace, a barrier that D&I policies can’t seem to get past? Could the answer be that we need to look elsewhere and that perhaps part of the problem is that we are yet to see a true shift in gender stereotypes at home?


How do gender roles in the home play out in the workplace?

Stats from the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) show 32% of men compared to 78% of women are engaged in cooking and housework every day for at least one hour. Among couples with children, the gender gap is even greater with three times more women (91%) than men (30%) spending at least one hour per day on housework.

‘Although the traditional male-breadwinner and female-carer model is gradually dissolving as most working-age women in the EU are now employed, many women in dual-earner or single households still do most of the unpaid work in and around the house.’ (European Institute of Gender Equality)

Anyone, male or female, who has tried to juggle a career with the weight of housework and childcare knows how challenging this can be. Taking on the lion’s share of the family chores can become entrenched and set a pattern for the next 10 or 20 years – a time when a career could be being built. With time and energy taken up by demands of housework and childcare, the partner who takes on the bulk of the work at home can be left sitting on the side-lines whilst others scale that slippery corporate ladder. Perhaps fathers taking longer paternity leave could see that initial division of labour in the family home being more equal?


Confidence and drive influence the choices we make

Self-belief can also be a barrier for women with some having a lack of confidence in their own abilities or a feeling of ‘imposter syndrome,’ which may deter them from applying for promotions.

‘I often observe women being less confident than their male counterparts when there is no apparent reason for them to be so… and more easily accepting compromises to their careers because of family commitments,’ says Berangere Michel, CFO at John Lewis Partnership.

Then there is the matter of choice and what drives us. Our career paths are a succession of choices we make; we all have our own set of motivations and priorities. Anyone who has been in the position of having to choose between more time with their children or a promotion knows how difficult that choice can be.

Is it possible that today’s working adults – both men and women – remain heavily influenced by the gender role models they grew up with, and could this be a barrier to women going for the top job? Children of the 1970s most likely had a mother who did the bulk of the housework and childcare. We often, even subconsciously, follow in our parents’ footsteps. Could it be that we won’t see gender parity at work until we see gender parity at home?


Looking to the next generation for real change

The societal norms of the past are changing – slowly but surely – before our eyes.  According to the 2022 Cranfield Female FTSE Board Report, there were 19 women in FTSE 100 CFO or Finance Director roles in 2022 – that’s up from only three in 2005. Corporate culture is evolving, workplaces feel more inclusive – getting the job is the only the first step, feeling a valued part of the organisation is what makes you stay.

Children growing up today have role models of women in top jobs, mothers who are the breadwinners, fathers who are the homemakers, not to mention the FIFA Women’s World Cup final being the second most-viewed TV event of 2023 (only pipped to the post by the Coronation of King Charles III). We are seeing positive change.

Could today’s children who are growing up in such different times ring the changes in gender parity in the home when they reach adulthood? If so, could that spill over into greater gender parity in the workplace? And will women’s confidence in their abilities and drive to get to the top increase, helped by the representation of more female role models? Is it a stretch to think that more girls playing football could lead to more women in the boardroom?

Only time will tell, but it’s a tantalising prospect to think that gender diversity policies – a sticking plaster today – may not even be needed in the future. Maybe one day, our CFO Pathways Report won’t need a pie chart on gender as it will be irrelevant. Just as some commentators have said that we have reached the point where ‘women’s football’ is just ‘football’ maybe we won’t talk of female CFOs or male CFOs… just CFOs!

It’s a journey we can support each other on by continuing the debate and working to ensure equal right to opportunities for all, whilst also respecting that others have the right to make different choices to our own. At Eton Bridge Partners, we are committed to supporting organisations to build diverse leadership teams and develop inclusive cultures.


We do hope you have enjoyed reading this blog and we would love to hear your views on a topic that affects us all. Please get in touch with Lynne to continue the discussion.