There are more women CFOs than you think

It’s “inevitable” that women CFOs will reach parity with men within 10 years, experts tell CFO Brew.
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Exactly how many female CFOs are there? It's a harder question to answer than you may think. The 2022 Crist Kolder Volatility Report found that 16.3% of CFOs at Fortune 500 and S&P 500 companies were women—a record-high percentage.

But this statistic doesn’t tell the whole story. It captures only 679 companies out of the tens of the thousands that employ CFOs, and the true percentage of women CFOs is much higher, believes Amy Alost, CFO of Integris Solutions and an advisory board member of the Dallas chapter of the CFO Leadership Council.

About 37% of the more than 1,800 members of the CFO Leadership Council are women, she pointed out. “And that to me is more of a representative sampling because it’s across all industries and all sizes of companies,” she told CFO Brew. Alost estimates that about 34%–38% of US CFOs are female, based on her study of the topic.

Data about the demographics of CFOs at privately owned firms is hard to come by because these firms aren’t required to report it. However, there are some indicators that medium-cap and privately owned companies have more women CFOs than large public ones.

Zippia found, for instance, that 28.1% of the more than 131,000 CFOs in the US were women in 2022, based on a study of its 30 million job profiles. A Oliver Wyman study found that 34% CFOs in mid-cap firms were women as long ago as 2018.

Messaging that only focuses on the small slice of companies at Fortune 500 level, can be harmful, Alost believes.

“You’re leaving 99% of the population out” of your statistics, she said, pointing to the many female CFOs of middle-market firms and large nonprofits.

Young women contemplating CFO roles who see only the large company data might conclude, “Well, those people don’t look like me,” Alost said.

Large and small. Women CFOs are making strides within the largest companies as well. “[There are] lots more first-time CFOs entering the workforce now at larger companies,” said Jenna Fisher, a managing director at Russell Reynolds who recruits CFOs and other executives. She is also the author of To the Top: How Women in Corporate Leadership Are Rewriting the Rules for Success.

In 2022, more than a third of newly appointed CFOs at Fortune 500 companies were female, and that 19% of them were women of color, the Cowen Partners CFO Movement Study found.

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An upside for women in finance at large companies, Fisher said, is that large companies “have a strong bench of talent to pull from,” and can prepare women for C-suite jobs as part of their succession-planning efforts. Middle-market companies may be more apt to hire from outside as “they need someone proven,” she said. There are “pros and cons to both” approaches, she added.

Middle-market firms have also done a good job attracting female candidates because they offer more flexibility, said Alost, who has worked for both middle-market and multibillion dollar firms. She’s also found the culture at smaller firms to be more congenial.

“I’ve got one of the best, most balanced leadership teams” consisting of two men and two women, she said, “and the women run finance and they’re fabulous.”

Parity may be within reach. CFO Leadership Council president Jack McCullough believes that it’s “inevitable” that women will reach parity with men in CFO roles within the next 10 years.

One reason, he said in an email to CFO Brew, is “simple demographics. More young women are entering the profession and staying in the profession than men.”

Among CFO Leadership Council members, he said, there are slightly more women then men in the population he refers to as the “next generation of CFOs”: VPs of finance and controllers, who are often tapped for CFO roles.

The changing nature of the CFO’s job, McCullough said, makes it well-suited to women. Qualities such as “communications, empathy, leadership, [and] strategic thinking are critical for a successful CFO,, and these are all areas where women excel,” he said.

Fisher advises women who aspire to CFO roles to have confidence and not to think they must be an expert in every aspect of the job in order to apply. One client of hers, she recalled, was reluctant to pursue a CFO job, even though she was talented and highly recommended, because she didn’t tick all the boxes.

Fisher and the woman’s mentor encouraged her to go for it anyway. The client landed the job and now is CFO of a large company who sits on several public boards.

“There is no purple unicorn,” Fisher said she reminds her clients. “No one fits all the requirements of a position.”—CV

News built for finance pros

The latest news and insights corporate finance professionals need to know to keep up with their constantly evolving industry.