Gwen van Berne, global board chair of the Institute of Management Accountants in Montvale, New Jersey, has spent two decades as a female finance executive. She served as CFO of RIPE NCC, a global internet registry. Currently, she is director of finance and risk at social impact investor Oikocredit, a Netherlands-based cooperative that offers loans or investment capital for microfinance institutions, cooperatives and small and medium-size enterprises in developing countries.
Van Berne spoke with StrategicCFO360 about where things are at for female finance leaders, how leadership presence is defined today and why we need to pay attention to “sticky floors” as well as “glass ceilings.”
A CFO Movement Study from Cowen Partners found that more than a third of new CFO hires at Fortune 500 and other major companies last year were women, up 20 percent from 2021. What in particular have you seen over the last few years to which you would attribute this spike?
While the numbers in this survey do not represent growth across all regions and size companies, they are indicative of great strides taken by Fortune 500 companies that employ hundreds, if not thousands, of people in recruiting talented women to serve as the financial leaders of their companies. These encouraging results from some of the largest companies will help set a precedent for what can be done in small and medium-sized businesses everywhere, relaying signs of progress and giving me hope for an even brighter future for women in the profession.
The results of the study, however, differ from region to region and do not quite paint a picture that is as diverse as it could be. As accounting and finance professionals, we should serve as trailblazers in promoting diversity and inclusion in our profession, not only for the sake of diversity alone, but also for productivity purposes.
Unbiased and objective decision-making, a staple of the profession, cannot be accomplished without diverse teams, which are proven to perform better. In order to innovate and transform enterprises, we must tap into the widest talent pool possible, particularly to survive and thrive in the uncertain economic times in which we live.
What are some ways that you feel the profession and these executive roles can foster more gender diversity?
When measuring diversity, we often analyze those people who hold the top jobs at large companies, similarly to the survey above. While breaking glass ceilings signifies diversity milestones that create headlines and inspire LinkedIn posts that go viral, we must also remember that often workplaces have “sticky floors”—meaning women in entry-level roles often get stuck there, signifying a struggle for women to rise up to the top finance and accounting jobs in their companies.
Professionals embark on a career trajectory and gain key wisdom and character attributes from their first few professional opportunities, yet these positions are often overlooked when companies build out a DEI agenda, as they place an emphasis on diversifying C-Suite and middle management positions.
It’s clear that more diverse organizations will be more successful, yet research done in the last 18 months by IMA revealed that women in the finance and accounting space do not always feel as if the environment they work in is supportive and empowers them to pursue growth opportunities.
Stereotypical expectations play a key factor in this, as women are expected to exude motherly or caretaker characteristics and be “nice,” but this is not the type of emotional reaction that all situations in business warrant, and it’s not the standard to which men in the profession are held. These social constructs need to be challenged in order to foster an environment where women can grow and thrive in all areas of business, not just accounting and finance.
What are some challenges that you feel female CFOs in particular face in attaining and retaining the top finance job in a company?
Female CFOs face many of the same challenges that all female leaders face: challenging the norms of what people traditionally viewed as strong and effective leadership traits and what it means, and looks like, to have a leadership presence.
Finance professionals, particularly CFOs, are responsible for rigorous financial oversight within their organizations, and what often comes with the territory is being faced with business decisions where all parties cannot be appeased. In this case, if a CFO happens to be female and expresses a strong reaction, she may be labeled as cold, unlikable or unapproachable. For example, female politicians are often considered cold or unlikable when they exhibit traits praised in their male counterparts and suffer electorally as a result.
My hope is that we will adjust to various forms of leadership presence, and it’s on all of us as human beings to build up tolerance to and challenge standard leadership expectations. We should look for opportunities to meet different kinds of people and get to understand their point of view in order to round out our own perspectives. That is key advice for expanding your view on gender roles in leadership, but also in growing as a professional and as a person.
What are some words of advice you would offer to a female finance professional working her way up through the ranks and vying for that job?
Now more than ever, finance and accounting professionals need to be creative and open to new insights and developments for the purposes of formulating a vision and plan to assist your organization on strategic and tactical matters. While women often face more obstacles on their way to top jobs and management positions, the advice I give to young women would be standard for all young professionals: understand the wider dynamics of your market and sector, learn from other industries and organizations and make meaningful personal and strategic connections wherever possible.
In terms of accounting and finance-specific advice, accountants today must be able to effectively capture the implications of their numbers—the “why” behind the financials and not just the “what”—to be successful. Being a finance professional in 2023 means understanding strategy, planning and all aspects of the enterprise, not simply crunching numbers.
The most valuable leadership experiences of my career weren’t courses that I took or textbooks that I read—they were real events. Whether it was combining law with accounting, serving in my first role as a manager, dealing with the 2008-2009 financial crisis, or, most recently, moving from banking to technology, and even becoming a mother, each experience you have that challenges your comfort zone changes you and makes you a stronger leader.