Journey to CFO: What’s Changed for Women in 2017?

You may be familiar with the numbers: women earn more than half of college degrees in accounting, and hold more than half of accounting and auditing positions, in the US. Yet, as of January 2017, women occupy only 61 CFO positions within the Fortune 500 (12.5%), a decline from 2015, when women accounted for 13.8% of such positions.

Moreover, in our latest CFO Signals™ survey, we’ve seen a decline in the number of women who are the direct reports of CFOs at large organizations—arguably an important resource pool for the next generation of CFOs. Although CFOs gave a wide range of responses when asked how many direct reports they have, the most common gender combination in Q1 2014 stood at five men, two women, while in Q3 2017, it fell to six men, one woman.

Research into the career paths of women who have risen to the CFO role reveals a number of common traits that offer useful lessons to anyone, woman or man, who aspires to the top spot

Despite these indicators, women have made slow but steady progress over the past decade: as one example, they held only 6.8% of Fortune 500 CFO positions in 2006. In addition, companies have good reason to pay more attention to gender diversity: research shows that having women in top leadership roles leads to increased company performance.

Given the progress that women have made and evidence of the value they bring, the slow pace of change raises a question: What factors are at play regarding women’s progress toward the C -suite? More important, what can women who aspire to the top of the profession do differently—if anything—to get there? That’s what this edition of CFO Insights will explore.

New issues at play?

The disparity between women’s strong presence at the entry level versus their smaller presence at the top defies a single, straight-line conclusion. Instead, it’s likely a confluence of factors. Two in particular may merit more attention from CFOs than they have received to date.

First, there is the matter of “unconscious bias,” also known as “implicit bias,” a natural tendency on the part of even well-intended and thoughtful leaders to be influenced by attitudes or stereotypes that affect their understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases are, by definition, activated involuntarily, without awareness or intentional control.

Despite being unintentional, unconscious biases can have significant consequences that affect everything from daily interactions with peers to larger decisions such as whom to hire and promote.

There are a number of actions that individuals and organizations can take to better understand and reduce unconscious bias. From an individual perspective, it is beneficial to simply question our assumptions: What informs the conclusions we draw about people?

Organizations can build off that by facilitating conversations to increase awareness, foster an understanding of how unconscious bias impacts our thought processes and actions, and provide guidance on how to effectively manage it. In addition, organizations can set expectations around inclusive leadership behaviors and constructively call out potential missteps arising from unconscious bias.

Second, women may also face a hurdle in their own approach to career advancement. Research has shown that women are less likely than men to pursue a role if they don’t meet the full set of stated qualifications. And, they may wait for a nod of approval before putting themselves forward, rather than simply “going for it.”

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