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laire Ighodaro is one of the pioneers.
When she got her accountancy
qualification in 1979, women made
up only three per cent of chartered
accountants. But she spent 20 years at BT, rising
to become FD of the 450m broadband division.
She was also the first woman president of CIMA.
And she did it while raising three children.
But she needed a change. Id been a senior
exec at BT for years and I was becoming bored,
she says. It suddenly occurred to me that my
children are now all grown up, so expenses were
down and it actually made sense to do the things I
really wanted to do. So in December Ighodaro left
BT to become a professional non-exec, audit committee chair and diversity adviser. Her portfolio
includes the Banking Code Standards Board, UK
Trade & Investment and the Open University.
She isnt the only woman to abandon the
executive track. Unlike Ighodaro, most do it
before they hit director level. An internal study of


high-flying women leavers by the BT Womens

Executive Network threw up surprising results.
Some of the women went into charity work. One
became a speech therapist. Five of the 26 respondents planned to start their own businesses. Only
two left to spend more time with family.
Only two. Its easy to assume that there arent
so many women FDs simply because they have
babies. But child bearing doesnt have to put the
brakes on career progression or ambition. Rather,
a range of factors cultural, historical, environmental have made women feel less than
welcome in the upper reaches of the finance club.
Whatever the reasons, theres no doubt skirts
are scarce among finance directors. Sarah Hunt,
managing director of headhunting firm Equity
FD, says that a recent advert she placed for
an FD position brought 300 responses
295 of them from men. And the rarity of
women at the top doesnt just reflect
lower numbers going into the profession.
Females make up 30 per cent of CIMA
members, but only 11 per cent of CIMAqualified FDs. Of the dozens of women I qualified with, only one that I know of actually has a
directorship, says Chrissie Slater, financial director at the pet goods company Scratch & Newton.
And while some of the inhibitors to women
becoming FDs are being rubbed out by time and
progressive employment policies, there is still
work to be done.

You cant start a debate on womens place in the

finance function without running into the thorny
question of male and female personality types. On
the one hand, women decry the stereotyping
however unconscious that marks them out as
less capable. On the other, many women admit
that their characteristics do, broadly, differ from
mens. And a company that doesnt acknowledge
those differences is prone to exclude a sizeable
chunk of its workforce from senior management.
A lot of women in the BT study had gone
because they felt the corporate environment didnt
suit their values, says Ighodaro. Women I mentor
worry about the aggressiveness of the profession.
They dont want to be aggressive. And although
competition is a good thing, when it becomes
destructive it creates a macho environment.
In some ways, that macho atmosphere is selfperpetuating. Even those women at the top of the
finance function find themselves having to adapt


to a male-dominated environment. Normally, Ill

be the only woman in a meeting, says Julia Lucas,
FD of distribution firm CPD Logistics. I dont
have a problem with it. But you can feel quite
alone. And whats the first thing we talk about in
most meetings? How the team got on at the weekend, or golf handicaps, or cars. No matter how I
try, I cannot get interested in football or golf. That
can exclude you.
Even in small businesses, Slater feels she is
quite unusual. More women start their own
businesses now, she says. But at networking
events, if theres more than one person involved
in a small company, the finance brain tends to be
a man.


That cultural bias can remove potential FDs from

the finance function before they really get going.
Some say women leave finance early on simply
because they have a lower boredom threshold.
My early career as an accountant was very dull,
says Zoe Tindall, now FD of Yo! Sushi. She found
Arthur Anderson a sterile environment, and
investment banking wasnt much better. Only
after moving to an internet start-up could she
shift from number cruncher to crafter of strategy.
In a smaller company, you dont have huge infrastructure to make decisions for you. Your opinion
counts. A lot of women I know are moving to
small companies for that reason. The men I quali-


The discrepancy is shocking. Women make up only three per cent of the FTSE 100 FDs.
But heres some good news for future generations: 46 per cent of CIMAs 2005 graduates are
female. Its been a growing trend over the past 20 years (see graph). Women have been
steadily making gains in the ICAEW; in CIPFAs 2004 class, females were actually a
majority; and for CIMA, the ratio of women to men is shooting up.
Wed expect todays FDs to come from the class of 1984, give or take a decade. With that in
mind, the small number of women FDs currently in-post makes a bit more sense. Women make
up 11 per cent of CIMA-qualified FDs, and thats pretty much proportionate for the class of 84.
So how has CIPFA become the most female-friendly institute? It could be a case of the public sector
leading by example. A number of major government organisations have women in the finance chair,
including the Department for Constitutional Affairs (Barbara Moorhouse) and the Treasury (Mary
Keegan, following on from her role as head of the Accounting Standards Board). Perhaps these
paragons of diversity have encouraged other women to follow suit?
My instinct is very much that the public sector is ahead of the game on this, says CIPFA chief
executive Steve Freer. Public sector organisations on the whole do tend to have decent modern
working practices including flexitime.
His impression is backed up by Institute of Employment Studies data, which shows that female
accountants are more likely to join the
public sector, while male accountants
are more likely to join industry. And in
every field, according to IES research,
Percentage of women among
men work an average of three hours
newly-qualified accountants
more per week than women except
in the public sector, where men and
women work the same amount. We
dont think thats a coincidence.
The institutes do run the odd event
to bring on more women the ICAEW
is holding a Women in Accountancy
forum on October 6 for students, for
example. Its this new generation that
offers the best hope of re-balancing
Data for 1984 unavailable.
the sex bias in the FDs office.
Bar represents 1985 figure

fied with go into more traditional finance roles.

So do women need more creative opportunities
than men? Doubtful. An Institute of Employment
Studies (IES) survey found that 73 per cent of
male accountants rated opportunities to be innovative as important to their work, compared to 48
percent of females. That seems odd but Tindall
thinks you need to factor in different expectations.
Maybe as a women youre pre-programmed to be
intolerant of boredom because in the back of your
mind you think, I could give this up and raise
kids, she says. Personally I would never consider
doing that. But men grow up seeing their fathers
do the nine-to-five and think its expected of
them. So they need innovation at work.

In contrast to the BT study, the Center for WorkLife Policy found that family was the number one
reason women leave the career fast lane. And for
many years, the apparent impossibility of having
it all has kept women choosing career or family.
A lot of successful women end up not having
a family because they dont want to look weak,
says Ighodaro. I had three children. I knew I
would have to travel at short notice and work late
at night or early in the morning. And there is a
price to pay; you do miss the odd school play.
Others who followed that route have felt
forced to scale down their ambition: not go for a
directorship, move to a smaller company or get
out of finance altogether. One woman I trained


Theres a jump factor here: not feeling welcome, women are moving out of corporate finance
functions into smaller companies and different
jobs. But theres a shove too: women often feel
theyre not give the opportunity to succeed.
Now head of finance at Friends of the Earth,
Eilish Kavanagh has worked for corporates big and
small. Ive been for interviews where the feedback
is they worry that I wouldnt display enough
authority, says Kavanagh. Maybe they didnt
mean it in a sexist way, but I think they thought it
would be easier for a man to do the job.

with was later in a position financially where she

didnt need to work, says Lucas. She stayed at
home to be with her children. Another downsized
her aspirations because her husbands job took
him away a lot. They couldnt both be on top of
the career ladder and look after the kids.
Kavanagh tells a similar tale. There were two
women here whod been finance managers but
then had children and came back at a lower level,
because they found it too stressful, she says. If I
had kids, I wouldnt be where I am today.


The family issue sits behind so many of these

assumptions. After all, men are (as yet) incapable
of actually bearing children. But not all women
want kids. And though mammary glands might
pose an advantage in feeding infants, theres no
reason why the chauffeur of the local under-14
footy team has to be female. In other words, you
can be committed to your job and your family.
Employers tend to make the assumption that
female employees will be the ones to drop everything and go get the children, says Lucas.
I suppose if you tried doing that as a man, people
would say, Is he really serious about his career?
Theres a definite double standard.
Inevitably, domestic duties make it more
difficult to work a long-hours, high-pressure job.

Things ought to be improving. Flexible working is

becoming more widespread. New technology
makes it easier than ever to work from home. But
in some ways, finance is unsuited to part-time and
flexible working. Many FDs we spoke to say the
job imposes pressures distinct from other disciplines. There is an expectation that people will
work a certain way in the finance function, says
former Friends of the Earth FD Fiona Shaw.
Often you find yourself saying, If Im trying to
keep down costs, Id better expand my time to get
it done. As FD, youve got an example to set.
We do have flexitime, says her successor,
Eilish Kavanagh. But you cant do it in the FD
role. Its not long hours its erratic hours. You
need to be prepared to work late and come in at
the weekend if youve got a deadline. Month

end, the payroll, annual reports, tax deadlines,

regulatory submissions finances milestones tend
not to be moveable feasts.
And then there are extraordinary events. Can
you walk away from an M&A deal? says
Ighodaro. Well, if its a life and death matter, yes.
But its not going to help your organisation or
your career if you constantly do that.
Some female FDs have got into flexible working. Its perfectly possible to run a company with
turnover of 15m as an FD on four days a week,
says Lucas. My team and I have found ways of
doing things a bit quicker. And if Ive got quite a
lot to do, I work at home. Myself and my business partner are both single parents we set this
business up with the view to be completely mobile,
says Slater. Its about being strategic. You just plan.

A nine-day fortnight or catching up on email at

home is one thing. Maternity leave is something
else. If you take six months off to care for a newborn, thats six months not spent improving skills,
networking and wowing fellow directors. Enough
time for colleagues to get the jump on you, anyway.
But time off doesnt have to be a career death
sentence. Look at Ighodaro. She took off six
months for her first baby, a year for her second,
and another six months for her third. And she did
it when there were fewer female executives in corporate UK. Now you can legally take a year off,


Advice from our interviewees for businesses...
Flexible working isnt always about reduced hours. Consider all the options.
Establish a womens network. Encourage current senior women to take up public
appointments. Theyll gain valuable experience and act as role models at the same time.
Change your attitude towards how you measure ambition.
Tell headhunters to include a certain percentage of women on your shortlists. Whatever you do,
dont recruit by word of mouth it limits your options.
Measure the results of any change that you make to working practices.
...and for women who are or hope to be FDs:
Build your network. American women are great at it in Britain women are still the outsiders.
If you need to travel, call a family meeting to explain it to your children, even if they are very young.
One of the downsides of flexible working is switching off. Work at home is still work. Make sure that
you havent signed up for part-time and ended up with full-time.
Keep husbands, nannies, aunts and uncles sweet you never know who will babysit in a pinch.

crucial if they want to understand and reflect

that customer base. Second, if they dont have
women at the top, they probably dont have many
women in the career pipeline. That means theyre
not exploiting their best talent, theyre only using
half of it. Third, brand. If Microsoft was just 45year-old men in sandals with bad haircuts, it would
give you an impression that their products werent
progressive, that they were less competitive, and
that they didnt understand the real world.
She says the female personality also benefits
the boardroom. Women are more collaborative
in their decision-making. They listen, they learn.
The decision in the end doesnt have to be the
one they came up with. They are perceptive to
trends and changes before they happen.

and I think thats reasonable, she says. Id rather

someone working for me come back after a year
having thought about their childcare arrangements, then come back stressed after six weeks.
The key, she says, is continuing professional

audit and risk control, all rose with the number of

women on the board.
(In the US, by the way, women are far more
likely to be on the board and to head up the
finance function. The Fortune 100 boasts 11


development. Keep yourself up to date and stay
in touch. If youve done that, you ought to come
back refreshed and with up-to-date knowledge.
But many female FDs say accountancy has
work to do in this area. Finance isnt as good at
retaining women as other professions, Lucas says.
For instance, GPs have a retention scheme. You
do a limited number of slots a week to keep your
skills up-to-date. That lets the practice pull you
back in more easily, too. Its a creative solution.

Why put all this effort in to retaining and promoting women? Well, its not just the feel-good factor.
Theres a strong business case, too. A US study of
Fortune 500 firms found that the 25 companies
with the best record of promoting women to
board were also the most profitable. A study by
the Conference Board of Canada showed
customer and employee satisfaction, as well as

female CFOs, compared to the FTSE 100s three.)

Here in the UK, the Cranfield Centre for
Developing Women Business Leaders reported that
FTSE 100 companies with women directors have
better corporate governance, as well as a 39 per
cent higher return on equity. Diversity is always
part of exemplary corporate governance, which will
enhance shareholder value in the long run,
authors Susan Vinnicombe and Val Singh write.
Glenda Stone, founder and CEO of Aurora
Gender Capital Management, has been looking
into why else this might be. She supplies gender
management software to big businesses. She also
runs the web site Where Women Want to Work
(, which provides assessment
of companies women-friendliness. She says
there are three main reasons why companies need
women in their top management.
First, their customers are unlikely to be just
men, she says. Getting women on the board is

Lets not get too down-hearted. Weve come a long

way in one generation. I can look back over a
25-year career and see the difference in attitude
towards women, says CIPFA president and council
CFO Diane Colley. But all the FDs we interviewed
agreed that women are still often treated as less
than equal in the finance function. What more do
you need to do to make sure they stay, develop and
become leaders? This is where you need to look at
your values and see where women are fitting in,
says Ighodaro. Changing your company culture isnt
about being politically correct, either. Its about
helping an organisation succeed.
At BT, she says, women have been made more
welcome because the chief executive was so keen
on looking at the problem. We managed to grow
their number and it wasnt by any social engineering. It was by recognising that we needed to have
the best for the business, regardless of what we
had done historically.
Ultimately, thats the best reason for removing
the barriers to women becoming FDs. The role is
far less focused on running an accountancy sweatshop these days. A modern FD adds value by
being creative, strategic and open-minded. Those
qualities arent always enhanced by working a
70-hour week. And in many cases, theyre skills
perfectly suited to the gentle touch.

WHERE NEXT... Research on women in business Which women made it to FTSE boards? Mentoring and career advice Recognising women pioneers in business