Women Leaders: Breaking the Glass Ceiling

CIMA and the University of Bath’s School of Management surveyed over 4,500 finance and business professionals from across the globe on the use of leadership skills and career progression strategies by gender. CIMA found that women are six times less likely than their male counterparts to be working as CFOs or CEOs. Unfortunately, this issue is mirrored across the whole of business, with women in the UK making up 46% of the working population and only 12.2% holding board positions in the FTSE100.


CIMA wants to redress the gender imbalance in the boardroom and has undertaken a women in leadership campaign as a commitment to support the progression of our female members into senior roles, as well as to promote the accounting profession to female students internationally. The commitment has resulted in a new report entitled, ‘Reflections from Asia-Pacific leaders: Strategies for career progression’ which was recently launched at the World Congress of Accountants 2010, held in Kuala Lumpur in November 2010. A similar report was published in the UK entitled, ‘Breaking glass: Strategies for tomorrow’s leaders’, containing Western-centric examples and references.


The Asia-Pacific report provides practical and personalised advice for women on how to make it to the top of the career ladder, and is based on research and interviews with senior female finance professionals from across the globe. It is part of a wider campaign CIMA is conducting to provide a network of support for women. It also states that having more women in senior roles is linked to stronger financial performance, and this is demonstrated through research that shows it’s not enough for women to have a token presence. Instead, a ‘critical mass’ of women on the board or in senior management (30 percent or more) produces the best financial results.


The finance industry has traditionally been a male-dominated environment, particularly at higher levels. But this situation is changing and we are proud that, since 2003, CIMA has one of the highest growth rates in female members out of all the accounting institutes, with 65,000 female members and students worldwide. However, there is still some way to go before female leaders are widespread.


This report is aimed mainly at women, as they frequently face additional challenges in a traditionally male-dominated industry, but many of the tips and advice it contains areinvaluable for men too.


Women in leadership campaign

Senior female role models are all too uncommon in the finance industry, and women in Asia often face additional barriers to success, in the form of societal expectations of women and business customs. This report aims to redress the balance by bringing together the successstories and strategies of some of CIMA’s most senior female members in the Asia–Pacific region.


The women featured in this report come from a variety of backgrounds, are of different ages and speak different languages. But all are passionate about their careers and about the importance of good leaders. And all have valuable advice for other women who wish to follow in their footsteps. In addition to the experience and advice of individual leaders, this report draws on the findings of CIMA’s recent international survey of finance professionals across the globe.


Beating the odds
Women now make up a third of CIMA’s members and just under half of CIMA’s students, but our female members are six times less likely than male members to be in very senior roles, such as a CFO or CEO. Malaysia and Sri Lanka fit with this global average, but an interesting exception in Asia is Hong Kong, where men are only twice as likely to be in these senior roles as women.


The pattern is repeated across businesses in spite of the increase in professionally qualified women in recent years. A study of MBA graduates found that women lag behind men in advancement and compensation from their very first professional jobs – even when taking into account the number of years in experience, region and industry. These findings apply equally to women who don’t have children.


It takes a lot of dedication to beat these odds and, throughout this report, women leaders reveal the personal qualities and strategies that have helped them succeed in a man’s world. But it’s not all down to an individual’s perseverance; there is also a lot that employers can do to help women reach the top. And there are several compelling reasons to do so.


The business case for increasing female leadership

Numerous studies demonstrate that companies with women in top management roles have a clear competitive edge. When senior leaders are too alike, they are likely to look at problems the same way. By contrast, diverse executive teams are more likely to innovate and be successful.


Qantas is one organisation that has taken this on board. A spokesperson told us, ‘Thebusiness case for supporting women is well established – rather than simply being theright thing to do, it benefits the business in being able to access the widest pool of talentand to engage, develop and retain talent. It also improves organisational decision makingand understanding of diverse customer perspectives.’


Research from McKinsey shows that having more women in senior roles is linked to stronger financial performance. In part, this is due to women’s leadership styles. Better female representation on boards also helps businesses to understand their customers – a key factor in a competitive market. A study of more than 500 U.S. businesses found that average sales revenues were more than ten times higher for organisations with a good mix of men and women on the board.


A better gender balance is especially important in the current economic climate. Studies show that men are more likely than women to make high-risk decisions, especiallywhen under pressure and surrounded by other men. The input of female and malemanagement accountants at senior levels is vital to ensure that companies make the bestbusiness decisions.


Importantly, it’s not enough to simply have a token approach to female representation, as research demonstrates that a ‘critical mass’ of women (30% or more) on a board orin senior management produces the best financial results.


Salary and seniority

CIMA’s male members in Asia are six times more likely than female members to be CEOs or CFOs. This is the same internationally.


Our global salary survey of CIMA members shows that Chartered Management Accountants earn significantly higher salaries than the national average in every nation featured in our research.


In developed economies, members’ salaries are usually between two and three times the national average. But in developing economies, such as Malaysia or Sri Lanka, the percentage can be as much as six or even ten times average earnings.


However, the survey also reveals that male CIMA members appear to be earning significantly more that their female counterparts, and some of the international disparities are startling, as illustrated in the chart here.

The differences between male and female remuneration packages from country to country, suggest that local culture also has a substantial influence over remuneration levels received by men and women. The differential is particularly alarming in Malaysia, where male members on average earn 51% more than female members. In Sri Lanka, the difference is 47% (which is the same as in South Africa). Part of this disparity could be explained by the fact that there are a greater number of more experienced male CIMA members in our global community. However, this issue needs to be looked at more closely, and addressed. 


Figure 1: 84% of women in the east sought to regularly change their employer compared to 60% in the west.


CIMA’s gender work survey

The CIMA Centre of Excellence at the University of Bath School of Management carried out an international survey of 4,500 finance and business professionals, in an effort to explore the use of a range of leadership and professional skills and career progression strategies by gender.


Skills use and development. Men and women tend to use the same skills in their jobs – though to different degrees (see Figure 2 below).


Figure 2: Skills usage – % indicating frequent use of certain skills by gender in current role.




Women in Asia are significantly less likely to use risk management skills in their roles than their male colleagues. Only 29% of women in Asia say they use these skills frequently, compared to 44% of Asian men. Interestingly, Asian men use risk management skills more than their western colleagues (44% compared to 26%).

Business acumen is another skill that Asian men use much more than their female colleagues. Half of Asian men frequently employ business acumen in their jobs, compared to 37% of Asian women. Here, Asian men are more in line with their Western colleagues, where 53% of men and 51% of women frequently use this skill.
Key insights
This report brings together advice and insights from senior female management accountants from across the Asia-Pacific region.


  • Rapid economic growth in Asia is creating more opportunities for women, but women are still underrepresented in senior finance roles.
  • Having more women in senior roles is linked to stronger financial performance.
  • Women leaders work in different ways from men and can bring their own competitive advantage to business.
  • Women still lag behind men in terms of seniority and salary. For example, in Malaysia, CIMA male members earn 51% more than CIMA female members.
  • CIMA’s male members in Asia are six times more likely than female members to be CEOs or CFOs.
  • Individual strategies for success include getting support from a mentor, promoting your achievements and joining female networks.
  • Employers can help by encouraging mentoring, offering flexible working practices, and actively developing female staff.


About the Author

Charles B. Tilley is the Chief Executive of CIMA. He is a regular commentator on a range of corporate governance issues, international standards, narrative reporting and strategic management issues concerning the profession and the Institute.


The women in leadership campaign is CIMA’s commitment to support the progression of its female members into senior roles, as well as to promote the accounting profession to femalestudents internationally. For more information, visit www.cimaglobal.com/women, where you can join CIMA’s online women’s network or read more case studies and useful content fromexperts in this area. You can also make your views heard in our women in leadership blogs at http://community.cimaglobal.com/node/33259


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