Women in Finance: How Female Professionals Are Becoming CFOs in the US

Brenda Morris, a CPA and CGMA holder based in the US, was told she’d never be a CFO. But her written plan, developed years earlier, told her otherwise.

In 1998, she reported to the COO of a company that did not have a CFO. She was the controller then, and she told the manager, in a performance review, that she wanted to be the company CFO. As Morris tells it:

“He said, ‘Brenda, it’s a lovely goal, a wonderful goal. But you are never going to be a CFO.’ ”

“I said, ‘Why?’ Because I was stunned that he would be that direct.”

“He said, ‘You have too much personality to be a CFO,’ which really was code for ‘You’re female and too soft.’ ”

But Morris did go on to become CFO at several public companies. She led the initial public offering of one of them, and she now serves on the board of Boot Barn, a public company that sells western and work gear in 28 US states.

The increase in female CFOs in the US is a reflection of some companies seeking a more diverse pool of candidates for leadership positions. And the number is expected to rise

Progress in the US

Even though Morris had a plan, visualized and then carried out, she didn’t have many role models. Women weren’t well-represented then in the C-suite, and their numbers, while growing, still remain low today.

Recent research shows that the number of female CFOs at major US companies has doubled in the past ten years, from 45 to 90. The percentage of CFOs who are women is 13.3%, up from 7.8% in 2005.

The Crist|Kolder Volatility Report, a twice-a-year measure of executive movement among 672 large companies, shows that overall turnover rates for CFOs and CEOs decreased for the second consecutive year. Crist|Kolder attributes that to capital markets growing, for the most part, in the past several years. Data for the most recent report was tracked through August 1st.

The increase in female CFOs is a reflection of some companies seeking a more diverse pool of candidates for leadership positions. And the number is expected to rise, said Scott Simmons, managing director at Crist|Kolder. “There is a focus in public company America to make sure that the best and brightest are given opportunities to grow,” he said.

The percentage of partners at US CPA firms who are women is 24%, up five percentage points from 2012. The number of female accounting students has dropped slightly, according to a survey by the American Institute of CPAs. Women make up 47% of accounting students in bachelor’s or master’s programs, down from 52% in the 2006–2007 academic year.

Having more women in executive positions could be good for organizations. A global report from the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants detailed the advantages companies can gain from having more diverse leadership, benefits that include more innovative approaches to problem-solving. 

And research from Wake Forest University and the University of North Carolina-Wilmington indicates that companies with female CFOs are less likely to evade taxes.

At the coalface

“There’s a different view of the world, and different topics come up when you have diversity,” said Hillary Coley, CPA, CGMA, the CFO at the not-for-profit Trout Unlimited, which is dedicated to conserving, protecting and restoring coldwater fisheries. “It helps to minimize groupthink, and that requires the whole group to absorb those personalities.”

Coley, who has been a CFO for the past 12 years, wishes to have more female peers in that position soon. She sees more women at accounting events in greater Washington, DC.

“There are more and more women in the room,” she said. “I hope with time there are more women in the executive suite.”

Jackie Davidson, CPA, CGMA, worked first in public accounting and then as a controller, vice president of finance, and CFO. In a 33-year career, she never reported to a woman. “There just weren’t a ton of female role models,” Davidson said.

Today, she enjoys being able to counsel her niece, who decided to pursue an accounting career because she had seen Davidson succeed.

Davidson got her first shot at being a CFO in the mid-1990s. She was the controller at a private company and had just decided to come back to work part time after the birth of her first child.

When the CFO stepped down, suddenly, for health reasons, Davidson got a call from the CEO: Davidson could move in to the CFO role if she came back to work full time.

The decision was a difficult one, but Davidson took the CFO job, and she’s happy she did.

What you can do

Coley, Davidson, and Morris offered advice for candidates seeking a CFO position:

Develop a strong base. For Davidson, that meant a start in public accounting. No matter where you start, think of education and early experience as “the building blocks to get you where you want to go,” she said.

Don’t be afraid to start small. Coley said that any organization, even a not-for-profit, can provide learning and growth opportunities. She became a CFO before the age of 30 at Trout Unlimited, which was small but growing quickly. The rapid pace of change meant that her job changed every year, offering different management roles and challenges.

Work on management skills. Coley said a solid finance background doesn’t mean someone has the skills needed to be a CFO. “You’re required to have a lot more people skills than they ever teach you in college,” she said. Seek out training in public speaking, managing people, and managing a political climate.

Don’t be deterred. Morris said the conversation with her boss in 1998 made her want to reach her goal even more. “Don’t let those types of roadblocks bring you down,” she said.

Take on responsibilities. Davidson said budding CFOs should volunteer for work on projects, even if the work is unfamiliar to them. “It’s about taking charge of building experience that gives you credibility when that CFO role becomes available,” she said.

Take risks. It can be difficult to leave a job and a company that provides a certain level of comfort, but Morris advises those with a CFO goal to escape their comfort zones. “If that organization isn’t going to provide you the opportunity that you want, you have to take a risk and go somewhere else,” she said.

Find mentors. Davidson was not alone in having few female role models when she began her accounting career. Now, she said, the mere presence of women in positions of leadership is inspiring to budding finance chiefs. “Just to be able to see somebody in these roles makes it seem more possible,” she said.

About the Author

Neil Amato is a Senior Editor at CGMA Magazine, a publication of the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, which offers the Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA) professional designation. The association is a joint venture of AICPA in the US and CIMA in the UK. Click here to subscribe to the weekly newsletter CGMA Magazine Update.

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