Women Rising Up the Ranks as CFOs and General Counsel

By Erin Abrams

While the lack of women occupying the role of CEO at Fortune 500 companies and Wall Street firms has been often lamented and debated on The Glass Hammer, a quieter revolution is taking place. Women are ascending to positions of power and influence as Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) and Chief Legal Officers (CLOs) or General Counsel, with increasing frequency. Indeed, a growing trend of women occupying C-suite offices as CFOs and CLOs has led to more women at the top slots of major companies and serving on their corporate boards. For a case in point, look to Erin Callan, CFO of Lehman Brothers, who was recently profiled in a Glass Hammer article.

This phenomenon is not going unnoticed. June 2008 cover story of CFO Magazine “Secrets of Their Success” which surveyed 12 female CFOs to learn more about how they staked their claims to their executive jobs. The CFOs profiled offered some excellent advice to women interested in getting ahead.

Echoing a theme that was prominent at this years Women on Wall Street Conference, Christa Davies, the 36 year old CFO of Aon Corp, explained that it was important to consider opportunities when they presented themselves, which is not always when it would be ideal for you to make a big move in your career. In Ms. Davies case, an opportunity for her to leave her job at Microsoft and move to Chicago-based Aon came up while she was out on maternity leave. “It wasn’t that I thought it was the right time for a change; this seemed like a unique opportunity,” she says.

The article also noted that, while America’s top companies added 9 female CFOs this year, 10 also departed and were mostly replaced by men, keeping the number of Fortune 500 female CFOs constant at 38, or 7.6 percent. Growth in the number of female CFOs is expected in the future, as more women are receiving MBAs and pursuing accounting degrees than ever before. Additionally, the number of female controllers, a key position in the CFO pipeline, has increased from 16 percent to 21 percent over the last few years.

Based on the results of this study, the best advice for aspiring female CFOs includes:

  • Build your résumé at a large company known for nurturing finance talent.
  • Establish a frequent history of promotions, don’t stagnate, even near the top.
  • Gain valuable operations experience by running a division.
  • Improve leadership and communication skills.
  • Portray yourself with a high degree of confidence in your professional and managerial abilities.

Additionally, more and more women are filling the role of CLO or General Counsel at companies. While the reasons for this may be different, this job has show more promise in recruiting high level women. The path to the GC’s office often involves many years at a law firm, and corporate or financial management experience is a plus. While the work of Chief Legal Officers is certainly not easy, some women report that going “in house,” even at a high level, provides them with more flexible working hours and enables them to spend more time with their families than at a major law firm.

Recently, at an event called Women to Women, female attorneys and their clients gathered together to interact with mentors, network and hear success stories from some top women who have succeeded at juggling a high level career and family. Sara Moss, Executive VP and General Counsel offered some great advice: she told the women gathered there not to feel guilty about spending time away from family when she was at work, and away from work when she was with family, as she spent many years doing. After a long career that spanned a private sector law firm and the US Attorney’s Office, Ms. Moss ascended to her current position as GC. She told the women in the audience not to apologize for their choices, but also not to demonize other women’s choices.

Whether you choose to aim for the CFO or the General Counsel’s office, these phenomenal women have broken the glass ceiling and demonstrated the accomplishments that women are capable of this these positions. They have also offered wise advice to help the women who might follow in their footsteps.