We all know the story: women and minorities are underrepresented in top finance and accounting roles, and even though their representation has grown, a yawning gap persists within senior positions and salaries. Today, only 15% of Fortune 500 company CFOs are women, and women earn between 12% and 45% less than their male counterparts in many accounting and finance roles.
In this month of women’s history, we recognize the steady changes that have taken place since the first female CPA in 1899. We’ve come a long way in 124 years. Female accountants and auditors now outnumber their male counterparts. Women lead finance operations at prominent companies like Zoom and HubSpot. Many women in finance are at the top of their game. In fact, we’re proud that Airbase’s Controller, Kelly Hicks, was recently named Controller of the Year for startup companies by the Controllers Council.
We’ve also had the honor to host eight top female CFOs in our Path to Becoming a CFO series, and have heard about the challenges and rewards they’ve faced on their journeys. In recognition of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, here’s a collection of their experiences and advice.
Gina Mastantuono, CFO at ServiceNow, chose her accounting major because she thought it would lead to a recession-proof career. But becoming a CFO wasn’t on her radar at all.
“There were no CFOs that looked like me, that were women,” she remembers.
That gap was part of the impetus for taking the ServiceNow position. She felt it was important that others see a woman leading finance for a high-profile public company.
Elena Gomez, former CFO at Zendesk and current CFO at Toast, shares that mission:
“I think it’s my responsibility to inspire other women, to show that it’s possible to mentor other women and to get more female CFOs out there.”
As a black woman, Alphabet board member Robin Washington aims to encourage women and under-represented minorities to pursue careers in finance. Her own career provides an inspiring example: “Did [being a woman] hold me back? Probably in some cases, but I didn’t spend a lot of time being a victim about it.” She says she was raised not to let others’ preconceived notions stop her from reaching her goals.
“I had parents who really believed, and taught me to believe, that I could do anything I want to do if I was willing to work enough. There were times when I didn’t accomplish certain things I wanted to do. And I would ask myself, ‘do you want it bad enough?’ I knew if I did, there was no stopping me and that didn’t mean it was going to be easy.
“You can’t own how other people react to you, but you can own how you present yourself and your ability to make a different choice if your current one isn’t working.”
Zoom CFO Kelly Steckelberg built her career by accepting any opportunity that helped her move forward:
“The general framework that I’ve used to make transitions in my career is I always look for opportunities to learn more and say yes to opportunities where I was going to be able to expand my role.”
Elena says she sees facing gender stereotypes as an opportunity to prove herself. She recalled one incident when, as a new CFO, she and a male Investor Relations manager met with some investors. The investors assumed off the bat that the man was the CFO until she was properly introduced. Then, “the look on their faces was, oh shoot, I think I just screwed that up.”
Instead of being defensive, she saw it as an opportunity.
“I actually flipped it as a way to lean in and not only answer the questions, but show them that I knew my stuff. It was fun to see their reaction, but also to show that it didn’t matter if I was female or not.”
Jennifer Ceran, former CFO at Smartsheet, also chooses to see barriers as a chance to prove herself:
“As a woman, I’ve never felt discriminated against. But I also know that I’ve had to fight for what I wanted since I didn’t have an old boy’s network.”
A network of support.
Finding ways to replicate an old boy’s network was a recurring theme with our female speakers. Kate Bueker, CFO at HubSpot, established this early in her career.
“I had a great setup of peers who were smart women and who graduated from business school at the same time. And we had a great network of strong women we worked with in the first three or four years of our career that helped train us. It was not an easy road — they were tough.”
Kate said she’s carried that experience forward and always strives to have a network of supportive people, not just at the mentor level, but also at the peer level.
Kelly Battles, former CFO at Quora, says she’s learned the importance of developing relationships that can provide advice and feedback when needed.
“It’s important, especially early on, to ask for feedback, be open to it, and then learn who gives you good feedback. Build a relationship with them.”
The work-life balance conundrum.
Women disproportionately struggle to balance work with the demands of family life, particularly if they have children. Although much progress has been made in the last few decades, for many women, the COVID-19 lockdowns increased the difficulties of juggling work and family. A McKinsey study found that mothers are more than three times more likely than fathers to be responsible for most of the domestic work and childcare during the pandemic. As a result, one in three women has considered leaving the workforce or downsizing their careers since the onset of COVID-19.
Rachel Glaser, CFO at Etsy, acknowledges that fitting everything in is challenging. She says she’s seen many creative ways of making it work, and there is no right or wrong way to achieve a perfect work-life balance.
“You should feel good in your own skin no matter what path you take.”
A pivotal moment in Rachel’s own career was after her first child was born. She’d planned to leave her FP&A job at Disney, but her supportive boss offered her a half-time position. Of course, the opportunity was created by her male boss, who joked he would likely receive the work of a three-quarter-time employee while only paying for half-time, but it was a break that allowed her to stay in the workforce.
“I felt that was a really key moment because I otherwise might have left for a while and never been able to return.”
Gina Mastantuono feels it’s helpful to acknowledge that a perfect balance simply isn’t possible a lot of the time
“I think sometimes you have to realize that ‘balance’ is the wrong word. You’ll never be in perfect balance.”
During intense periods at work, Gina needs to spend more time at her desk, while other times are all about family. She also abides by some simple advice she got early on in her career: to ask her kids where they want her to be.
“If they couldn’t care less if I’m at a basketball practice after school, but they really want me at that game on Saturday or Sunday, I’ll make a point of being at that game, without my phone.
“My boys think it’s very normal for women to work and for moms to work. And they feel really good that they know that whatever is important to them will be important to me.”
Happy Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day to all the hard-working women in finance!
Want to connect with other finance professionals of all genders? Check out our exclusive, no-sales-allowed Slack channel, Off the Ledger