The world celebrated International Women’s Day on March 8, an annual reminder of how attitudes towards women’s equality and emancipation have changed, and how much more needs to be done.
It’s a campaign that is close to the heart of Helen Brand (pictured), Chief Executive of ACCA (the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants). The 162,000-strong organization was the first accountancy body to welcome women as members in 1909 and was also the first international accountancy body to be led by a woman, Vera di Palma, in 1980.
Women have moved forward in finance, Brand told CFO Innovation’s Cesar Bacani, “but there’s still a long way to go.” She discussed the issue of women in finance in this first part of a wide-ranging interview conducted earlier in the year. Edited excerpts:
Would you have an idea as to how many women CFOs there are worldwide?
I wouldn’t have that figure, but it’s low as a percentage. Another measure would be partners in the Big Four firms, and that’s low. In some cases it’s stagnated or slightly declined in recent years.
It’s not on an upward trajectory on the senior level, not on a steep upward trajectory at all. There’s still a long way to go in terms of attracting women into those roles.
ACCA has done quite a lot of work with [UK non-departmental public body] Economic and Social Research Council researching issues around diversity in the boardroom. I think just as important is diversity in the senior executive roles in an organization.
It’s about women wanting to do those roles, as well as the barriers to their getting those roles.
Women don’t want to be CFOs?
No, I’m not saying that. [The problem is] the perception around what would be required of them, that they would be required to behave in the same way as the men or live the same lives as the men.
That’s not necessarily the case. There are different forms of leadership and different ways to execute those roles.
What we’re very keen to do is to link that diversity that can be brought by women – and all other forms of diversity – into the senior levels to business performance. In our recent report, Women in Finance, we’ve drawn together some of the evidence showing that business performance improves by whatever metric you care to apply when there’s diversity in the board.
Why is that the case, do you think?
I think that has something to do with being connected to your customers. Having that difference of viewpoint really does connect you more to the customer base that you are attempting to communicate with.
It connects you to your employees as well. We know a lot of success stories in organizations around engagement. Engaging your people is easier when they can identify with the leadership and they understand the perspectives of the leadership team. There are a number of really strong benefits.
But it’s going to require role modeling. Sometimes it requires shock tactics. We saw this with the Davies report in the UK [which found in 2010 that only 10.5% of board members in FTSE 100 companies in the UK were women].
It didn’t mandate [quotas for] women in the boardroom, but we certainly saw significant moves. I think there was an immediate 7-8% jump around the numbers. [Editor’s note: Lord Davies reported last year that women occupied 17.3% of board seats in the FTSE 100 as of 1 March 2013.]
I think it was raising the consciousness of the business world and the mere threat of legislation made people do it voluntarily.
Norway has mandated that at least 40% of board seats in public companies be allotted to women.
I think with mandation you can get tokenism, which doesn’t help. It undermines the individuals because they are viewed as only being there [because of the requirement].
It’s that understanding that the best person doesn’t have to fit stereotypical CVs or what they look like, their gender, their ethnicity . . .
Why do you think people automatically think that the top jobs should go to a man rather than a woman?
I think people think in their own image. Perhaps if you are a woman, you think of a woman. So you have to be careful about that as well.
It’s all about balance and making sure you have the right inputs to decision-making. So [you need] independent directors and independent board members who can help you to achieve that, rather than simply doing it in your own self-image.
Are there things that women themselves need to do?
There are all sorts of evidence that women don’t have the same level of self-belief as men. When they look at the next job they could apply for, they look at the five things that they cannot do or that they haven’t done, and they say, I’m not quite ready because I haven’t done that.
The man will look at the five things they have done and talk about those, and be confident that somehow they’ll learn the rest. It’s this confidence that makes them put themselves forward, whereas the woman . . . this is generalizing, but there is some research being done that shows a woman will say, I better hold back till I am perfectly ready.
So should women be more ‘man-like’ in this regard?
No, I think being more man-like undermines diversity, and it is not authentic. Everybody knows leadership has to be authentic. For example, if I as a chief executive were to walk around looking manly, being macho, that’s not going to work.
I think women have to learn to be confident in their abilities. It’s not winging it; it’s just understanding that you will learn, that you can fill the gaps.
Men are good at establishing support networks in the workplace that quite often, for family reasons and others, women [are not good at]. They do their job but they are not concentrating on that broader networking with the people that can support them.
People often talk about mentors, who are very important. But you also need to have [other] people in the organization to support you to do what you need to do.
Is there evidence that people who are confident about their abilities go on to become board members and senior executives?
That’s what the women we’ve done interviews with, who are senior executives, that’s what they say, that they took those kinds of risks and moved forward.
Some of the reasons are structural. There are still issues around the long hours, culture, about conforming to expectations about your behavior.
And if you’re a mother, you are seen, fairly or unfairly, as perhaps not as focused on your work as you should be. You need to take maternity leave and so on.
There is such a thing as sharing the burden. This is not an issue just for women; this is an issue for men as well. If men value diversity in the workplace, it requires change from everybody. It’s not simply the woman who has to change. The family and the work environments need to embrace that difference and do the work differently.
But if I as CEO or CFO am under pressure to make my numbers, I may not be able to do it if I tell my people to go home on time and to have work-life balance.
There are swings and roundabouts. There are times in the working year when that’s necessary, so you have to compromise on both sides. This is my experience [as chief executive].
The continued pursuit of perfection in all aspects to your life is probably wrong. What you look for is that balance. Sometimes you’ll be imbalanced on the work side; sometimes you’ll be imbalanced on the family side.
I have seen very often, when an employer recognizes this particular family need or this particular issue and allows the employee to deal with it, gives them space, covers for them if necessary, then the loyalty and commitment and productivity from that individual in six months’ time or a year’s time is ten times what it was before.
In terms of the bottom line, would you say that women are more cost-effective because they receive lower pay than men for the same work?
I hope that’s not something that a business has to rely on [to ensure profitability]. That’s illegal.
Are you optimistic going forward that women will take their equal and rightful place beside men in the workplace?
Yes, it makes sense. You want the best talent to lead regardless of gender.