Years ago, it was even more obvious that the career path of women involved “making it” in a man’s world. There were not enough examples of strong female role models and many had to blaze the trail for those who followed. Nowadays, female role models are being highlighted in new ways and women entering the field have more examples of female role models to emulate than ever before.
However, there are still too few women in accounting leadership positions. As of 2014, there were more women CFOs in Fortune 500 companies (11 percent) than there were female CEOs (4-5 percent). In fact, in 2013, the highest paid CFO in the USA was a woman: Oracle’s Safra Catz. So even though the numbers aren’t nearly as high as women would like them to be, they are moving in the right direction. One rumored reason for the disparity between men and women in CFO positions is that women often opt out of their career track to manage work/life balance issues or to find other opportunities that allow them more flexibility on a variety of levels. Accounting and finance positions are still viewed as roles with intense work schedules.
To account for the gender gap, there needs to be an increased awareness that the gap even exists. For female college graduates, accounting is seen as a great career option with stable demand predicted over the next several years. At the entry and early career level, there’s a plethora of opportunities and salaries are consistent, regardless of gender. Now those women who have progressed to mid-level positions are experiencing barriers in a whole new way.
More specifically, when speaking about the gender pay gap, we often look at the entry-level data, but when you break it down and analyze women who have been working for 10 or 15 years, that is where the wage gap is accentuated. Women should feel empowered to ask for pay raises, but there is quite a bit of research indicating that women don’t negotiate as effectively for their salaries as men. There isn’t a lot of room to negotiate early in a career; however, the farther up that ladder you go, negotiating becomes more common and, as a result, the wage difference becomes more obvious. So, the first step is acknowledging the existence of the gender gap and the second step is working together to close it.
Secondly, one of the biggest challenges in moving into senior positions in accounting, for both women and men, is balancing the development of technical skills and leadership skills. Accounting and finance professionals are required to have a great deal of expertise, often times in specialized areas, but they need to seek growth opportunities outside of the finance function if they want to evolve as leaders.
The first step is to leave your accounting cubicle. The more chances women have to communicate with professionals in a variety of functional areas early in their careers, the more they will see how accounting information supports value creation within a company. This will help them further develop their “enterprise wide” lens view of the organization, which is imperative for leadership roles both in and out of accounting and finance.
In addition, being part of a professional association, which offers an opportunity to practice leadership skills outside of an everyday work environment, is also important. Involvement in professional associations or conferences can give a real boost to presentation and communication skills – without these skills, it’s tough to appear ready for a leadership position.
Women from different generations have a lot to teach other. In addition, there needs to be a combination of women-only conversations as well as discussions that include their male counterparts. This is the best way to highlight the problems while working together to find solutions. All professionals – both men and women –have a role in and responsibility to help close the gender gap, and a difference through a lot of dialogue and working together on solutions can be made.