When Indra Nooyi resigned from PepsiCo last summer, she had spent 12 years as CEO–the rare woman to sit atop a major corporation. Nooyi, the company’s first and only female CEO, had been promoted to the position after six years as PepsiCo’s CFO. But like many of her peers, when her tenure was up, Nooyi was replaced by a man.
At the moment, there are reportedly just 27 women CEOs in the Fortune 500, none of whom are women of color, and 24 women CEOs in the S&P 500. The number of female CEOs peaked in 2017, with 6% of the Fortune 500, in no small part because women are rarely promoted to executive positions that could one day make them CEO. The women who manage to become executives tend to be relegated to roles in HR, marketing, or finance. Of the Fortune 500 companies, 64 have female CFOs.
When it comes to the woman CFO in particular, it may seem like we’ve made more progress than is reflected in these numbers. Over the last five years, we’ve seen women step into the role of chief financial officer at prominent Fortune 500 companies and across the tech industry. There’s Amy Hood at Microsoft, and perhaps most notably, Ruth Porat at Alphabet. Sarah Friar at Square was succeeded by Amrita Ahuja in January, and last year General Motors appointed Dhivya Suryadevara as CFO, making it the rare company to boast a female CEO and CFO.
But these appointments, while notable, haven’t kept pace with how many women actually work across financial services and accounting. In 2016, more than 60% of accountants and auditors were women, and over half of financial managers were female. Since 2000, the number of female CFOs has more than doubled, but the last five to six years have seen only a few new appointments. “Overall, progress has really stalled,” says Anna Beninger, senior director of research at Catalyst. “It’s wonderful to have visible role models, but these are just a handful of women.” Despite the cultural shift sparked by the #MeToo movement and increased dialogue around women in leadership, Beninger says the structural challenges remain. “Any time there’s a visible high-profile appointment, we should celebrate that,” she says. “But my immediate question then is: What are you doing in your pipeline to ensure you have many more women coming up behind that person?”
When I talk to women CFOs, they acknowledge change has come slowly but are optimistic, in part because of the women who are making headlines. “When I’m part of a group of treasurers or group of CFOs, the vast majority are still men,” Jennifer Ceran, the CFO of software company Smartsheet, says. “I would say 80%-90% of them. I haven’t seen a sea change. But I have seen some amazing women get very important CFO roles.” (Ceran adds that when she was transitioning from a treasurer role to investor relations, en route to becoming a CFO, she had to lobby for it–and asked for the job three times before she got it.)
Multiple women point to mentors and bosses who helped promote and support them as they worked up to a CFO position. “Several women that were in senior finance positions at Disney were role models and also very supportive,” says Etsy CFO Rachel Glaser, who previously spent 19 years at Disney. Glaser also tips her hat to a male boss at Disney who encouraged her to work part-time when she became a mother, which she then did for nine years. Laura Onopchenko, the CFO of personal finance company NerdWallet, says she underestimated the level of support she could have had while working her way up. “I wish I had realized sooner in my career that there was a lot more people could have done for me, if I had raised my hand and had the confidence to admit and acknowledge that support would be useful,” she says.
One thing companies do seem to be doing differently is at least sourcing female candidates while hiring for executive roles like CFO. “I’ve heard anecdotally from recruiters that there are quite a number of CFO searches where they mandate looking for a woman,” Onopchenko says. (Of course, looking for female candidates alone doesn’t ensure a company will actually hire a woman: Research shows that there’s little to no chance a woman will get hired if she’s the only woman being considered for the job.)
For public companies in particular, installing a woman as CFO also serves as a way to put a female executive in a more visible role, as the person fielding tough questions and sharing financial information on quarterly earnings calls. Perhaps that also explains why more women have found their way to the CFO role than to other positions in the C-suite. “I think one of the things in the CFO role that is important, especially if it’s public facing, is your ability to build relationships and communicate well, and I think women have that innately in them,” Ceran says.
A more cynical view might be that hiring or promoting a woman as CFO shores up goodwill and introduces diversity, without necessarily setting a woman on the path to eventually becoming CEO. “One significant caveat around getting women into CFO roles is that they rarely lead to becoming CEO,” Beninger says. “CTO, CMO, CHRO, and CFO–those are all mostly staff positions, and those are the ones where you see a higher proportion of women. Whereas when you look at the other jobs that are all operational, all line roles, they’re overwhelmingly dominated by men, and those are the ones that most often lead into the CEO position.” Less than 15% of CEOs are reportedly promoted from positions like CFO, and when a company does promote a CFO to the top role, it’s usually because the company needs someone with financial expertise at that point. In other words, Nooyi’s trajectory isn’t the norm, and there’s a reason women don’t want to write off the likes of Sheryl Sandberg.
But as more women take on roles in the C-suite, the hope is that they will slowly build and foster a pipeline that will allow companies to continue to promote women across executive jobs and, hopefully, replace unicorns like Nooyi with other women. Women CFOs like Glaser are actively trying to create an ecosystem that will do just that–a task that is certainly helped by Etsy’s overall gender parity and diversity efforts. “Over 60% of my team of 80 is female, so I’m creating the foundation to be able to promote more females into senior positions,” Glaser says. “With my direct reports, about 30% are female and in senior positions–one is the controller of the company, and the other one is the head of investor relations. It gives me a great feeder pool when I think about my own succession plan.”
Cynthia Gaylor, the CFO of software company Pivotal, says her team frequently discusses whether they have a diverse slate of people who could step into her role down the road. “You can bring diversity into your company by bringing in diverse people, but those diverse people then need to attract more people,” she says. “My team is over 50% women, close to 200 people. It wasn’t that way when I joined. It takes conscious effort in how you recruit and give people new opportunities.”