It’s a long way to the top

As both a former CFO and CEO in the world of Australian business, Ming Long knows how difficult it can be to take that final step up the corporate ladder to become chief executive officer, the boss in charge of the company’s destiny. According to a census of senior executives in the ASX-200 companies, conducted by the Chief Executive Women group and collated from data collected in August this year, only five per cent of these companies have women CEOs, and only nine per cent have women chief financial officers. The position of chief financial officer, according to many in the know, has been the most likely to launch a candidate into the CEO position.

Of those so-called C-suite executive positions (CEO – chief executive officer, CFO – chief financial officer, COO – chief operating officer, and CIO – chief information officer), women are the least equitably represented in the CEO and CFO roles, the census found, holding down single digit percentage proportions of the jobs. The COO-group executive jobs, too, were dominated by men, with only 13 per cent held by women.

Women dominated in only two senior executive fields – human resources, where 75 per cent of the positions were filled by women, and corporate affairs, with 52 per cent of the roles held by women.

Ms Long, who at one time was group CFO with the Investa Property Group and CEO of the Investa Office Fund, and now has a number of senior positions in the corporate world, including non-executive director and chair of the audit and risk committee for AMP Capital Funds Management Limited, says the gap between women’s representation in CEO roles and in CFO roles (with almost double the proportion of women CFOs compared with women CEOs) seemed odd to her.

“When you think about the position the CFO has, when it comes to pull and push, they understand where the risks are, they have massive input into strategy, and they’re usually the second-in-charge to the CEO”, she told The Deal. Running the business, she added, was “a partnership between the CEO and the CFO, and the CFO has a special relationship with the board”.

Long didn’t actively lobby for a position as CEO, the board made that decision for her. Her work as CFO during the global financial crisis had proved her worth.

Bias, she says, continues to exist in the upper echelons of Australia’s corporate world, but people were beginning to understand that women brought different thinking to the table and that is was incumbent on those hiring to ensure women were equally represented. “There’s a very special place for gender”, she adds. “Women are 50 per cent of the population”.

Yet the fault was not necessarily with those hiring for the top corporate echelons, according to Darren Challis, managing director of Challis & Company, a Sydney-based boutique executive board search firm. Rather than bias, it’s simply the lack of qualified candidates that prevents such appointments. “There is not a client that I would work with, particularly in the corporate world, that does not emphasise diversity and particularly gender diversity”, he explains.

It should be remembered, he adds, that the CEW census only includes data from ASX-200 companies. “To be a CFO of a listed company, you need to have mastered most of the sub-functions within finance, including – most relevantly – investor relations,” he says. “And therefore, many of the ASX-200 CFOs come from other listed environments, sub-200, or sometimes they are partners from big four accounting firms. In all the feeder pathways into the ASX-200, females are under-represented for CFO roles”.

The focus, then, he concludes, should be on ensuring women are considered for positions at every one of the many steps along the way to the CFO and CEO roles in large listed corporations.

Amanda Williams, co-lead of the CFO practice at Korn Ferry, an international search and recruiting firm, says she and her colleagues have found, both from research and anecdotally, that there is no single pathway to the top for women. The pathway to the CEO position once “quite often” included a CFO or finance role en route, but that is no longer routinely the case, she explains.

“More and more we are finding that technical expertise gets you a ticket to the dance”, she says, “but decisions are made on many other factors, culture being very important”.

Her advice to any woman aiming to become CEO is to gain broad experience in the business and make sure that part of that experience involves running a complex business unit with responsibility for a profit and loss centre.

Libby Lyons, the director of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (formerly known as the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency) says company boards “clearly haven’t got it”, largely failing to realise that a 50-50 men-women split in senior management was a driver for the bottom line, for better employee engagement and for more diverse and innovative thinking.

Those C-suite positions, including CEO and CFO, are just as suitable for qualified and suitably experienced female candidates as they are for male candidates – it comes down to making sure the women have the credentials and the experience.

“We’ve got to increase the pipeline of women”, Lyons says. “We need women to get operational experience, and there are a lot of organisations out there doing just that. Alcoa, for instance, has a fabulous sponsorship program where they are actively sponsoring women into operational roles and giving them that experience on the coalface, at the refinery, in the mines”.

Interestingly, the WGEA has found that male-dominated industries do better at pushing women up the ladder than the female-dominated industries of healthcare, social assistance, education and training – the growth industries.

All Australian firms with more than 100 employees are required to send gender data to the WGEA each year. With this much broader sampling it has been found that about 15 per cent of the full range of Australian businesses, from the very big to much smaller, have women bosses. Data has been collected for three years now, and the proportion of women managers at all levels has been very slowly increasing. Yet obstacles remain.

“There’s no two ways about it, we have to change the culture”, Lyons says. “It’s not going to happen overnight, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. I firmly believe that pushing the data out there and saying this is the status in our workplaces today, we have to do better, is really starting to get traction. You can’t refute the data”.