In 2021, IMA partnered with CalCPA (California Society of Certified Public Accountants) to learn more about accounting and finance practitioners’ perceptions of inclusion in the profession. The research revealed a large gender gap between women’s and men’s perceptions that was quite startling – only 37% of women agreed with the statement, “I believe the profession is inclusive” versus 69% of men who did. Why the large gender gap in perceptions of inclusion, especially at a time when women make up over 50% of the college educated labor force as well as the majority of the accounting and audit workforce in the U.S.?

This International Women’s Day, when #inspireinclusion is the call-to-action for women and men around the world, it is worth considering why 63% of women IMA surveyed in 2021 did not experience a sense of inclusion in the profession and what progress has been made since then on gender inclusiveness in the profession.

In 2021, women comprised 12% of CFOs at Fortune 500 companies. In 2023, the percentage of female CFOs rose to 16%. Today, there are 63 female CFOs at the Fortune 500 (the highest number in history) and research shows they are outperforming their male peers in quantifiable measures like improving the stock price of their company. Part of their success is developing a mindset focused on providing insight and foresight (looking to the future) as opposed to that of the traditional CFO role which focuses on hindsight and oversight (looking to the past). For example, Susan Li, Meta’s CFO, (who is 36-years-old and one of the technology industry’s youngest CFOs) considers herself “a partner in steering the business direction and product vision for the company.”

Another prominent female CFO at a Fortune 500 company is Kathryn Mikell at Exxon Mobil. She also spoke of the importance of adding value at the strategic level in her role. In an interview with the Chicago Booth School, she said the most valuable thing she learned in school was “how to think strategically across industries. It gave me a foundation for thinking about the structure of an industry, barriers to entry, differentiated competitive advantages, and macro-industry trends— and how to use that information to shape a successful strategy.”

In offering advice to aspiring young women in accounting and finance, Mikell encourages women to find “stretch roles” or roles where they may not feel comfortable at first. She elaborated on this concept, in that “you need to take some risks and stretch yourself. That means taking an assignment that’s a little bit uncomfortable or looking to make a job change outside of your prime area of expertise. We need to continue to figure out how to get comfortable with those jobs or projects that stretch us the most, because they enable the most personal development.”

Similar advice comes from Amy Hood, the CFO of Microsoft, who stresses the importance of self-confidence and a supportive network of professionals to help you grow. In an interview with WOMlead, Hood said, “find someone who reminds you of what you do well, and what you don’t do so well. This mutually trusting sponsorship will give you the confidence to take risks.”

Taking risks, building foundational knowledge in accounting and finance, improving self-confidence, and leveraging strong networks of support are just a few of the strategies these leading female CFOs have used to advance themselves within their own organizations. At IMA, we have made career advancement for women in accounting and finance a priority. Every year, IMA hosts a Women’s Leadership Summit in which women from all different backgrounds and career levels can meet to discuss the trends and issues impacting them in the workplace. This year, the summit will be held on April 24, 2024, in San Diego.

This International Women’s Day, as IMA seeks to inspire inclusion, we hope the examples of the CFOs included in this article serve as inspiration for young female professionals embarking on their careers, as well as more seasoned women grappling with advancement up the ladder.

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