This is the first installment in a series of blog posts based on Vena’s ongoing “Women in Finance” video series. Each post corresponds with a different interview with a woman in finance leadership.
Watch Episode 1 below.
A young Christine Harms was working in a restaurant when she first decided to pursue a career in finance.
Early on in her college experience, the current Controller for the Arizona Cardinals had rejected her initial studies in electrical engineering, deciding it wasn’t for her. But she didn’t have a back-up plan either.
“I went home and ran a restaurant. Or helped to run a restaurant,” she remembers. “And the owners were like, ‘You know, you're really good with accounting. You're doing all the headcount, you're doing all the payroll, you're doing all the bills, you're doing all of this—you should be an accountant.’ And I took that to heart and I researched it and said, ‘Okay, I'm gonna be an accountant.’”
That was just the start of the journey that brought her to her current role. But there was a jagged path in between—including a period spent working in nonprofits, time off to start a family and some decisions that felt risky at the time. But for Harms, it was her mother—a first-generation immigrant turned small business owner—who inspired her at every step along the way.
“She's now in her seventies and she's very successful,” Christine says. “She taught my brother and me, ‘Do what you're good at and enjoy what you're good at. And you can do everything you want to do, you just have to learn it.’”
While that might have been the case for Christine, though, is it still true for women today making their way up in finance? And how does the newest generation of female finance professionals navigate their own path to the top echelons of finance success? Christine spoke to Wendy Braithwaite, Chief Financial Planning & Orchestration Officer for Microsoft Canada, for “Building a Successful Career in Corporate Finance,” the first of Vena’s Women in Finance video series. There, she offered some words of advice for young women starting their own careers in finance today.
- While women are gradually taking on more financial leadership positions, the balance of top-level finance jobs are still held by men—and there are still challenges in the way for women looking to make it to the top.
- The reason women aren’t making it to the top in greater numbers is multifold. Not only are they missing out on promotions early on in their career, but inadequate work-life balance is burning them out and a fear of failure and a seeming lack of mentorship opportunities are holding them back.
- To help build a clearer path to leadership roles, women need to get over their fear of failure, while finding a company that supports them, asking for the mentorship opportunities they need and pursuing a path they love—taking informed risks along the way.
Why Aren’t Enough Women Making It to the Top?
Before we look at Christine’s advice, let’s examine the state of women in finance today. Are they making it to leadership positions—and if not, why not?
The truth is, while a similar percentage of women and men enter finance, women still aren’t making it to the top in the same numbers as their male counterparts. In financial services as a whole, women make up just 19% of C-suite positions throughout the United States. That’s even lower than the 22% average across industries.
While the good news is that there are more female CFOs than ever before, the ratios are still widely uneven. And even today there are still a range of challenges getting in the way. These are just a few:
1. The “Broken Rung”
If women and men are entering the financial services workforce in near equal numbers, but very few are making it to those top-tier positions, something must be happening along the way. And part of that is just a numbers game. Because the truth is, women are less likely to get promoted early on in their career—from entry positions into managerial roles. And that means they’re less likely to find themselves in a position later on to reach senior leadership too.
“Within financial services, only 86 women are promoted to manager for every 100 men,” McKinsey and LeanIn.Org revealed in their 2021 Women in the Workplace report. In fact, they found that that’s pretty much the standard across industries. That “broken rung” early on in the career ladder presents systemic challenges that make it harder for women to make it to the top.
2. A Lack of Mentors
The right mentors can help guide you—pointing you toward career-enhancing opportunities and becoming a sounding board for decisions along the way. In that role, they can be key to your professional growth and embolden you with the confidence you need to excel. Yet research shows that 63% of women haven’t had a formal mentor—even though 67% rate it as highly important for the advancement of their career.
Of course, many women seek out other women when they look for mentors so the fact that there are fewer women in leadership roles can make it seem like there are fewer mentors to choose from. Yet, it’s also the case that female leaders simply aren’t being asked. In fact, 54% of women in leadership positions have only been asked a few times or less to be a work mentor, while 20% have never been asked at all. This despite the fact that 71% of those leaders say they always accept mentorship requests.
3. Inadequate Work-Life Balance
Even today, women still spend more time on household responsibilities than men. This is true in every country around the world and is the case whether a woman works full time or not. In fact, research has shown that while women spend more time on “family activities” compared to men, they spend the same amount of time on “work activities.” Not surprisingly, then, work-life balance can be a struggle.
That struggle to find a balance can lead to a higher risk of burnout and lower productivity overall. Both of which can affect a woman’s performance, damage her review scores and negatively impact her overall career trajectory—making top-level success harder to achieve.
4. Fear of Failure
“Failure isn’t the opposite of success, it’s part of success,” Arianna Huffington once said. But fear of failure can often get in the way of actually achieving that success. This is true for anyone, but can especially be the case for women, who often feel a pressure to be perfect, something they’re taught from a young age. A global study of female students, published in 2021, found that this fear was particularly prevalent among high achievers. The study pointed to that fear-of-failure gender gap as one of the reasons women are underrepresented in certain occupations.
Fear of failure—and an overall lack of confidence—can be a real obstacle, then, for women trying to get to the top. Not only because failure can be a learning experience that can make us better leaders, but because that fear can make us give up on those bigger dreams before we even have a chance to realize them.
Advice for Future Female Finance Leaders
Of course, those aren’t the only challenges women face in the workplace today. There are still biases that pervade many workplaces that can also get in the way when it comes to getting ahead.
Despite those challenges, though, women entering the finance field today also have a wealth of opportunities available to build the type of career that will make those leadership roles possible. And with more female CFOs than ever before, the trajectory is clearer than it once was. So what can the next generation of female finance professionals do to put themselves on the fast track towards top-level success? Here are a few pieces of advice:
1. Find a Path You Love
“I love numbers,” Christine Harms says. But when she first started her education in accounting, it still took her some time to find the best place to apply that love of numbers to her future career.
“I had never in my life received a C in any class and my very first accounting class was a C and I thought, what have I done?” she remembers. “But it got a little easier and I got a B. Then I went into managerial accounting. And I think that the different approach of financial accounting and managerial accounting is what tipped the scale for me.”
Of course, university isn’t the only opportunity to switch gears and find a new path that works for you. You’ll have those opportunities throughout your career, as you follow different career trajectories and explore different positions. And when you do, it’ll be easier to find the path you love and excel in.
“There are so many different areas of finance, honestly, that you can find your niche in what you find intriguing, interesting, fun. And it's not really a career once you find that point,” Christine says. “It's like doing what you love to do every day.”
2. Find a Company That Supports You
Positive work-life balance is possible. And it’s even more possible at a company that does what it can to support it. You just need to find the right workplace.
That might mean seeking out a company that offers flexible working hours that let you easily juggle things like childcare and family appointments as well as work. It may mean choosing to work with companies that provide mental health benefits or have a culture that recognizes your overall accomplishments, not just the hours you spend behind a desk. But most of all, it means finding a company that actually cares about your overall well-being and career progression—and will support you in your journey. Because when you find those companies, charting out a path to a successful career can be as easy as asking for it.
“Your job and the people you work with, you have to let them in—to tell them ‘This is what I want and this is what I'm going to work for,’” Christine says. “‘And I'm going to do the best job I can for you, but these are also the things that I desire.’”
3. Ask for Mentorship Opportunities
Research shows that men are more likely than women to seek out mentorship opportunities—as well as to offer them. But there’s an easy solution.
By seeking out and asking for the mentorship opportunities you want, you can start to reap the benefits the right mentor can offer. As we saw earlier, 71% of female leaders say they always accept work mentorship requests. And if you approach someone who, for whatever reason, doesn’t accept your request? Well, that doesn’t mean you need to stop looking for someone who will.
Someone like Christine, for instance, who loves being a mentor. “Being an advocate and mentoring career growth not only makes me feel good, but it makes my team members feel good and it teaches them more,” she says. “I think the biggest motivator for me is being able to share my knowledge, to share my understanding of what I can help someone else with in their career.”
4. Take Informed Risks
“Don't be afraid of change,” Christine says. In fact, taking calculated risks is often what it takes to get ahead.
Yet women have long been seen as more risk avoidant than men in the workplace—probably at least in part because of that aforementioned fear of failure. But 2022 research in the Psychology of Women Quarterly also shows that their risk taking isn’t always met with the same positive response as that of their male counterparts.
Does that mean women should avoid risks altogether? No. But you should embrace workplaces that will reward those risks—whether they’re made by a man or a woman. And while you can learn which risks will get the best response, you shouldn’t let roadblocks along the way stop you from taking more.
Take applying for a job, for example. Women apply to 20% fewer jobs than men—in part because they feel like they need to meet 100% of a job’s criteria to be considered. Men, on the other hand, will apply after meeting only 60% of the requirements. Taking a risk, and applying for that job anyway, could go a long way to helping you realize your goals.
5. Face Your Fears
“There’s nothing in the world that anyone can’t do if they would just put their mind to it,” Christine says.
But that doesn’t mean your goals are going to come easy—and that there won’t be failures along the way. And being afraid of that failure before it happens isn’t going to help you achieve your goals. In fact, by accepting the fact that you will fail at some point, and understanding exactly what it is that has you so scared, you can start to face your fears and get past them—so that they don’t get in the way of your success.
"Fearlessness is a muscle,” Arianna Huffington said. And like all muscles, it takes some exercise to develop.
The Next Generation of Finance
Somewhere out there, the next generation of female finance leaders is already forging their way to top-level success. While you may not know yet what the future has in store, you have the goals to get you there. And that’s where it starts. Finding the path that will make those goals a reality is the next part.
Thankfully there are female finance leaders—Christine Harms, for example—to provide inspiration along the way.
Watch the entire Building a Successful Career in Corporate Finance video, featuring an interview with Christine Harms. And stay tuned for the next interview, with Vena CFO Melissa Howatson, scheduled for release March 15, 2023.