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Are female CFO's bringing a shift in business?

Els Verbraecken with DEME, Birgit Conix with Telenet, Veerle Hendrickx with Atlas Copco and more recently Nathalie Basyn with Bank Degroof-Petercam... The number of female CFO’s has definitely increased in the past few years. Does this represent a shift in business? Or does it take more to bring women to the top?

 Robert Walters invited Els Verbraecken, Birgit Conix and Veerle Hendrickx to discuss this trend.

Just a matter of time

The list of female CFO’s has become impressive. Female CFO’s are often replacing their older male colleagues and according to Veerle Hendrickx, VP Divisional Controller at Atlas Copco, this increasing presence of female CFO’s was just a matter of time. “Thanks to their education, women are nowadays much more present in specific areas of business such as finance, marketing and HR. This in turn provides them with more opportunities to become CFO’s. Companies will first look at those business areas when wanting to increase gender diversity within their management teams."

The role of a CFO has also changed a lot in the past few years, going from an accountant role to a solid business partner. Besides technical knowledge, soft skills are increasingly important. As a coach and business partner, the CFO is now more often put in the spotlight. A newly appointed female CFO can therefore always count on receiving some attention from the press, especially if they are the first within their sector.

Room for improvement

Birgit Conix, CFO of Telenet, has a critical note regarding this ‘increase’ of female CFO’s: “Only 6% of the S&P500 companies counted female CFO’s in 2000. That number increased to 9% in 2010 and 11.4% in 2013, to finally stabilise at 11.6% in 2015. The trend increased significantly for some time, but not a lot has changed since 2013. This means that this role is still being filled by a man in 9 out of 10 cases.”

The Institute for the Equality of Women and Men reports that almost half of management committees (47.8%) within stock quoted companies and economical public government enterprises did not even count one single woman in 2014, while 39.1% counted just one.

The fact that Telenet’s management team is fifty-fifty male and female is a rare exception. Birgit Conix and Els Verbraecken (DEME) are however the first female CFO’s of their respective companies.  It’s remarkable that it was only in 2014 that Trends elected Karen Van Griesven (Melexis) as the first female CFO of the year.

Women often submit themselves to a glass ceiling. They question their own competences and are reluctant to put their career first. 

Equal opportunity as a company culture

Companies who perform relatively well often have a company culture that stimulates employment equality and allows for a good work/life balance. “Scandinavian companies are proving that combining a demanding career with a family life is possible. My employer, for example, does not require for me to be reachable at all times. So the laptop can stay home while I’m on holidays,” Veerle Hendrickx explains. “In addition, Atlas Copco has an internal programme which promotes equal opportunities for women and men.”

Peace of mind

This does not mean that female CFO’s no longer need to choose between their career and their family. “You cannot be both a driven manager and the perfect partner and mother at the same time. You need to distinguish and differentiate each role in order to be able to prioritise them and opt for your career", Veerle Hendrickx explains. “The partner also needs to agree", Birgit Conix adds. A lot of organisation is needed in order to build a career at the top.

Affordable and flexible childcare facilities remain a difficult topic. Childcare in Belgium could definitely improve by providing longer opening hours and more affordable prices. It has nowadays become a real struggle for parents to pick up their children on time from school or day care and all this organisation is often a great annoyance to a career. Els Verbraecken, CFO of DEME comments: “You need to have a certain peace of mind in your private life in order to be able to fully commit yourself to your job."

Women in high level positions should also not worry about what naysayers may think. “A real change needs to happen in our society”, Els Verbraecken comments, “in order for women in high level positions to no longer feel the need to justify the choices they are making."

Quota as a solution?

Numerous studies have demonstrated that companies could definitely benefit from having women holding C-level positions. Having a woman in such a position increases diversity within the team and directly correlates with better decision making processes. According to a McKinsey study, the percentage of female CFO’s should increase to 30% in order to have a real impact within society. As observed by the Institute for the Equality of Women and Men, most companies are still very far away from that number.

The Institute also indicates that the percentage of women in management committees has doubled in the last 6 years. Could introducing a regulated quota of 40% like the one established for management committees therefore be a solution? Before the quota regulation was introduced, that percentage was down to 8.2% in 2008. Following the regulation’s introduction in 2011 it increased to 12.7% in 2012 and to 16.6% in 2014.

The glass ceiling

Our female CFO panel however sees no benefit to introducing a quota regulation. “Women often submit themselves to a glass ceiling”, Els Verbraecken and Veerle Hendrickx agree. “They question their own competences and are reluctant to put their career first. Men on the other hand struggle less with this idea. Women are also less into career planning than men. They should, just as explicitly as men, assert what they wish to achieve."

“The mentality within Belgian companies has really changed” says Birgit Conix. “As soon as all practical matters like child care are dealt with, nothing will keep women from concentrating on their career evolution."

Beyond the CFO role

While the CFO role is progressing into a more female oriented function, we however cannot say the same regarding CEO functions. “The majority of CEO’s come from the operational side of a company and often have a strong technical background. As a result, there are proportionally more men occupying the role”, Veerle Hendrickx explains. “As long as women do not branch out and expand their fields of studies, not a lot can change regarding the number of female CEO’s. It's a considerable step to go from CFO to CEO as well. It takes an even bigger amount of energy and time. I am for one, more than happy to still have some time left for my hobbies. As CEO, I would need to give those up.”

More women equals more diversity

Our three female CFO’s are convinced that women can bring a real added value to a management team. Women are often equipped with a more dialogue oriented way of communicating. They also love transparency and efficiency and have an eye for the bigger picture. There are no grey areas or everlasting decision processes for them. Women are more observational and are able to clearly define arising issues, according to the CFO's.

All three have a critical view on diversity. They agree about the added value a multicultural team can bring to a business and that there still is much to improve. The arrival of more female managers seems to therefore introduce more diversity in all different areas of an organisation – something that should be beneficial for any business.

We thank Els VerbraeckenBirgit Conix and Veerle Hendrickx for their participation in this debate.

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