The finance sector is notoriously male dominated. And despite some progress over the past decade, there’s still a long way to go before women have an equal voice.
By Nilly Essaides
Back in the early 1990s, when I started my career in finance, I was often the only woman in the room. And my colleague Anne Friberg, NeuGroup senior director and peer group leader, says that in the 2000s, when she was facilitating peer group meetings across the country, those rooms had a lot more men than women. “Now, the room looks more diverse,” she said this week.
- Her impression is backed by data: Today, 31% of NeuGroup members are women. Women also make up a third of senior positions (treasurers and assistant treasurers) and 26% of all treasurers. “The rise in membership is indicative of progress,” Ms. Friberg said.
It is certainly an improvement. But the fact remains that there are not enough women seated around conference tables in rooms (virtual or otherwise) where finance is the focus.
It’s lonely at the top. At the highest levels of the finance profession, women are conspicuously absent. According to 2021 data provided to the WSJ by Crist Kolder Associates, only 15% of the CFOs at S&P 500 companies were women. The silver lining, if it can be called that, is that this number represents a 25% rise since 2017.
- “When we talk about women in finance, we talk about them broadly but also in leadership. Just playing a numbers’ game is not going to cut it,” said the treasurer of a large tech company at a recent meeting of Women in NeuGroup (WiNG), sponsored by CNote and Seelaus Asset management, both women-owned firms. “While overall, we now have 50% women in finance, the question is how many are in leadership roles? That’s the metric we track,” she said.
Greater opportunities. Treasury is more diverse than finance, because “it offers a greater degree of flexibility in backgrounds and experiences as opposed to the rest of the finance organization,” another member said. For example, the accounting field remains more male-dominated because many of the staff have Big Four experience, and the Big Four have a long way to go towards greater diversity.
- “I’ve really enjoyed the evolution in my lifetime. When I started, there were no other women, only men with no kids or with a stay-at-home wife,” said one NeuGroup member.
There is a long way to go. “The statistics continue to reflect a jarring reality, and while I appreciate the data is directionally positive, given demographics, women are still severely underrepresented,” said NeuGroup COO, Amy Kemmerer.
- The pandemic has also slowed progress toward greater participation by women, as it forced more women than men to exit the workforce, due to additional childcare responsibilities. Our own data reveals that the participation of women in NeuGroup’s network essentially stalled between 2019 and 2022. “With restrictions lifting and schools once again open more consistently, I hope progress will resume,” Ms. Kemmerer said.
- Of course, the urgent need to balance home and work life is not new: women were often the ones to pick up more than their fair share of work at home, while having to work even harder than men at the office just to be perceived as equals.
Building awareness. While many female treasury executives report they are heavily involved in diversity work within their own organizations, they also feel they have a responsibility to build broader awareness. “We have an opportunity to share and learn about how we can use the power of our positions to really solidify commitment to a more inclusive financial industry,” said Cat Berman at CNote.
- “Sharing our experiences, intentionally, methodically, is so important. But it’s also important to be visible,” noted one of the members. “It’s one thing to work on D&I behind the scenes, but it’s different when you are visible and stating your priorities.”
- Another member said when she was pregnant, she felt like she lost her seat at the table. “The CFO told me that he wasn’t coming to me with new projects because he was trying to be respectful. That’s the worst thing that can happen in your career.” She has responded by becoming more vocal, announcing what projects she wants to work on. “It’s a little pushy, perhaps, but you have to make sure people know what you want.”
- Raising awareness also means raising the bar on what you expect from male colleagues. Gender equity is not just a women’s issue. Men, particularly in senior positions, must play an active role in advancing the careers of women on their teams.
Share of wallet. Female treasury leaders report that they often find they are the only women in a room full of bankers. Their advice is not only to say something but do something. “I brought up the issue of diversity with my bank team,” one member said. “I told them: ‘I am working on my team; what are you doing for yours?’”
- Another member sent a poll to her banks to find out how many women were on their teams. “I felt that just asking the question is powerful.” Her question put her bankers on notice this is something they should be thinking about.
- One member of WiNG took the opportunity to drive change when executing a lucrative bond deal. She asked the deal’s diversity coordinator to go through each of the participants and assess their commitment. “It delayed the transaction for 45 minutes, but it forced the bank teams to own up to what they’re doing.”
A generational change. Real change will take time. ““We need to continue to invest in and support future generations of women in finance and celebrate different mindsets,” Ms. Kemmerer said. From a practical standpoint, it means not only ensuring diversity in hiring but also continuing to nurture and develop talent. “We also need to support more young women to enter STEM careers.”
- “We need to think about creating the next generation of accounting and finance professionals, and what are we doing to ensure that they all have a really rich career path,” one member said. To this end, her company created a library of training materials and ties continuous learning into staff’s year-end feedback.
- “We’ve been doing lunch and learn sessions where we show a video on a D&I topic and then move into breakouts where we discuss the videos and really dig into some hard-to-talk-about areas to raise awareness and understanding of each other as individuals,” the member said.
- “People are starting to try different approaches and different solutions,” said Annie Seelaus. “And I think two, three, five years out, we’ll start to see if we’re changing the paradigm. We have to be thoughtful about what things are going to really change representation forever.”