High-profile female finance directors do exist, such as Kathleen O’Donovan at Invensys. Rosemary Thorne used to be a fellow Hundred Group member through her top finance role at Sainsbury before leaving to help Bradford & Bingley prepare for demutualisation, itself a big job. Other high-flyers are coming in to public view, such as Helen Weir, shortly moving into the FD seat at Kingfisher plc. However, these women are partly notable for their rarity value. Men still dominate the finance director scene.
There are numerous reasons why this could be so: women could be choosing life in professional practice in preference to the cut and thrust of commerce; they may be making work-life balance decisions and choosing part-time posts; they may be thriving in small businesses, setting up operations where they have power to establish their own office agenda; or they may still be banging on the boardroom doors but not being admitted by established male hierarchies.
The apparent scarcity of female finance directors seems surprising given that women have been surging into the accountancy profession in increasing numbers for some years. Women now account for 42% of all ICAEW students and 18% of its total membership, compared to 11% in 1990, and 4% in 1980. They now make up 35% of new admissions to membership, up from 31% in 1990 and 6% in 1980. A similar rising female presence is depicted by other institutes’ statistics. The Scots ICA’s membership is 75% male, 25% female, but students split 51% male, 49% female. Women now account for 20% of CIMA’s membership, compared to 14% in 1996, and represent 41% of CIMA students.
‘The proportion of newly qualified accountants [ACAs] who are women has been more than 30% for about ten years, which means you would expect to see some flow-through,’ says Kathryn Britten, a partner in BDO Stoy Hayward and chair of Workplace, the ICAEW’s initiative looking at work and lifestyle issues.
So why aren’t more women taking the limelight as finance directors? Are they perhaps choosing life in professional practice above line management in commerce? Many women are rising up through accountancy firms, and Britten is herself one such success story. ‘I joined BDO Stoy Hayward ten years ago after a career break,’ she says. ‘I came in part-time, eventually went full-time and became a partner five years ago. My career break and working part-time obviously didn’t stop me progressing to partnership and I hope that’s a message for women in the firm.’
Danielle Stewart, partner in London-based accountancy firm Warrener Stewart, and Accountancy Age Young Accountant of the Year in 1994, believes women are progressing better in the profession than in industry. ‘It’s almost irrelevant in the profession if you are female,’ she says. However, she suspects that inflexibility and long hours make the path to becoming an FD tough for women.
‘All the finance directors I know, bar one, are expected to work incredibly long hours,’ Stewart says. ‘There’s a macho thing that unless you stay until you are falling over, you don’t get promoted. That typically is not something women are in a position to do if they have any family life, and women are anyway less inclined to work like that.’ Stewart believes her professional career gives her greater flexibility. ‘These days I work 10am to 6.30pm, because that’s what I have to do,’ she says. ‘I have a nanny to get back to. I wouldn’t get a job as a finance director.’
However, according to the ICAEW, women make up approximately 7% of partners within accountancy practices, which doesn’t seem quite a high enough proportion to explain the shortage of female FDs. Women are not simply rejecting directorships in favour of partnerships.
Why chose flexible options?
So are women choosing alternative working patterns, including part-time options? Two years ago CIMA-qualified Elaine Howe co-founded Working Options, a business seeking to place senior to middle managers across a range of disciplines in part-time work. She has found strong demand for the service from part-time job seekers, male and female. Demand is less strong from employers, however, and part-time directorial positions are almost unheard of.
Howe is herself evidence for the third potential explanation of why fewer women than men are filling top FD roles, namely that they are going off and doing their own thing, founding their own businesses where they can form the office culture and increase control over their working lifestyle. Howe worked for ten years with a multimedia company as a financial manager before taking a two-year career break when her children were small. She then intended to find part-time work, but set up Working Options in January 1999 instead. Although she does work long hours, Howe feels she has more control over when she works them. ‘There are days when I can say I am out of the office for the afternoon and that I will work in the evening,’ she says. ‘I have the flexibility so I don’t have to worry about missing a netball match. That’s what a lot of people want – a certain amount of flexibility.’
Anita Monteith, a member of the ICAEW’s Council and former director of The Financial Training Company, is an accountant-turned-dot.com-entrepreneur. Monteith co-founded worldoftraining.com, an Internet-based training marketplace, which launched its website in April. ‘I have three children and working full-time within employment would be a nightmare,’ she says. ‘Women are very good in finance director roles, for example, but often they don’t want to do them. Why work full-time for someone else when you can have a more fulfilling life, be more flexible and more in charge of your own time? Doing what I do now means I really enjoy myself. I’m exhausted, but I get on with it.’
Many women opting to stay in professional advisory roles are similarly going it alone. Susan Gompels, a member of the ICAEW’s Council and the principal in her own professional practice, was an early pioneer of this independent spirit. ‘I was trying to have a social balance within my home that was not available through traditional employment 25 years ago when my children were small,’ she says. ‘I had to create that.’ Gompels questions whether traditional success models, such as becoming an FD in a plc, are appropriate today. ‘If you look at the numbers of small, effective, entrepreneurial businesses and calculate their contribution to GDP, it would be considerable,’ she says.
The belief that many women are setting up or choosing to work within smaller businesses is backed by research released earlier this year by Experian, the global information solutions company. It found that women make up just over 33% of UK directors, but that 95% of boardroom women are found in companies with turnover under £5m, suggesting a strong female entrepreneurial spirit.
So what of the fourth proposed explanation of the shortage of women finance directors – that they are being kept out by conscious or subconscious discrimination? Is there still a glass ceiling impeding women’s rise to top management? Experian’s cross-disciplinary research suggested there could be. It found that women are rising to directorial positions within business units, but few make it to the main holding company board.
Helena Dennison, chair of the City Women’s Network and founder of Key Learning, a consultancy specialising in people development, HR and communication, also suspects the glass ceiling has not been thoroughly shattered yet. The CWN is a cross-disciplinary networking group set up in 1979 for senior women working in London’s Square Mile and Dennison has studied its development. ‘At its inception CWN was 100% corporate women; we are now 43% entrepreneurs,’ she says. ‘That’s a big shift.’ When Dennison investigated the cause of the change, two key drivers emerged: discontent over how major corporates are run, including a perceived lack of attention paid to individual needs; and a feeling of exclusion from top jobs despite merit.
However, she says such female frustrations cannot all be blamed on men. ‘Women do a number of things that don’t benefit themselves,’ Dennison says. ‘They are not prepared or do not know how to make themselves visible, but visibility is a number one attribute for getting promoted. Many women at senior levels are lacking in self-confidence, but they have to be confident to push themselves forward. They don’t visualise themselves in these roles and therefore do not carry out the right behaviours to put themselves in line for them.’ Overall though, Dennison believes the glass ceiling is still there. ‘It’s kept in place by some of the real, old, hardcore gender stereotypes men have,’ she says. ‘It’s also held in place by women’s perceptions of there being a glass ceiling.’
Even so, women with ability, self-belief and drive are making it to the top financial roles in industry. Helen Weir, newly appointed finance director of Kingfisher, has not felt herself hindered in any way by her gender. ‘I have never had a role where I felt that, because I was a woman, I was seen in a different way or had to be better than a man,’ she says. Weir has also achieved her success despite being a mother of two. Her first child was born while she was a McKinsey consultant, her second when she was FD at B&Q. ‘About two months after I was appointed as FD I had to go and tell my managing director I was expecting my second child,’ says Weir, who claims her fellow directors were supportive. ‘I took about four months out and we brought in an interim manager,’ she says.
Having experienced life in a professional services firm and in a plc, Weir sees different advantages in the two worlds. ‘It tends to be easier to take time out from a professional firm than from a line manager role,’ she says. ‘In a professional firm you are often working on particular assignments and once one is completed, there is a natural break point. It’s quite different in a business organisation where you have a line management responsibility. It’s harder to take time out.’
In a sense, therefore, taking maternity leave is easier in a professional firm. However, Weir says that one factor influencing her decision to leave McKinsey was the need to increase control over her working life. ‘In consulting you are at the beck and call of your clients,’ she says. ‘If a client says on Friday afternoon that you need to be in the States on Monday morning, you have to be there. In a business environment I feel I have a little bit more control over my timetable. I work as long hours, so maybe it’s just a perception of control, but that is important.’ Weir stresses, however, that working women need to have an effective support structure in terms of the home environment. ‘I rely on other people – our nanny, someone to help with the cleaning,’ she says. ‘They are very important. If that support structure breaks down, it’s hard.’
ICAEW-qualified Marina Wyatt has also experienced life in both the professional and commercial camps. She trained at Arthur Andersen, spending eight-and-a-half years in practice before joining Psion in 1994 and becoming its FD in 1996. Wyatt hasn’t sensed a great difference in flexibility or work-life balance. ‘A job in practice is tough, and a job in industry is tough,’ she says. Wyatt opted to move into industry to experience a product-driven culture, rather than a service-based one. She says: ‘In practice you tend to be a small cog in an enormous organisation where you can’t directly influence how it is doing. When you come out and go into management in a company you are directly contributing to the success of the company.’
Like Weir, Wyatt says she has never felt her gender to be an issue. ‘It’s an open culture here,’ she says. ‘If you are ambitious and good you can do well. We encourage women in senior management positions.’ In addition to Wyatt’s group finance responsibility, two of the heads of finance in Psion’s eight operating companies are female. However, she is aware of being in the minority at business functions. ‘I am conscious that networking events or external business meetings are male-dominated,’ she says.
Lynne Hunt, an ACCA-qualified accountant, holds the top finance position in ambitious SME Checkmate International, a food assurance company. Hunt joined as financial controller around 18 months ago and after just six months was invited to join the board as finance director. ‘We are a small company that thinks big,’ says Hunt of the £8m turnover business, which is expanding internationally and already has offices in Geneva, Spain, Ireland and Greece. As the only female board member, Hunt believes that she brings balance to top level discussions and decisions. ‘There are ten male board members and myself,’ she says. ‘You get the occasional jokes, but I feel I am treated with respect. Sometimes the other directors want to know what my opinion is on certain issues, speaking as a woman.’ Female staff at Checkmate also think it is ‘great’ that she has joined the board, Hunt says.
Until recently, those female accountants who wanted to share their experiences could turn to Women in Accountancy, a pan-institute group that pooled ideas and produced research and advice tailored specifically for women. However, the WIA has been allowed to slip into oblivion. The institutes suggest that this is because there is no longer a need for such a body. As far as the ICAEW is concerned, the torch has now firmly passed to Workplace and its broader focus on life-work issues as they affect all members, including women, men, the over-50s and so on. Workplace also provides a networking forum for women and men interested in issues such as the work-life balance.
Cause for concern?
As for the shortage of female FDs, particularly in major corporates, should this be a matter of concern? Not necessarily. Not if it is due to the tranche of late 1980s and early 1990s qualifiers taking career breaks, or working part-time, with the option to resume their career full-time in future; nor if women are making positive, entrepreneurial choices to set up their own businesses and accountancy practices. But if even some women are hitting their heads against that old glass ceiling, then the accountancy profession and corporate UK should be worried about wasting valuable finance talent.
Hunt, at Checkmate International, believes that workplace attitudes have improved since the late 1970s and does not feel her gender has impeded her career. Nevertheless, she doesn’t believe most boards of directors can rest on their laurels just yet. ‘Until boards change their views further, women may still not gain the opportunities they deserve,’ she says.
- This article first appeared in Financial Director magazine.
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