Strategy & Operations » Leadership & Management » FD Women in Finance drives debate on female leadership

How to solve the problem of declining numbers of female leaders in the UK’s largest companies was tackled at last week’s Financial Director Women in Finance event, undertaken in association with search firm Bronzegate.

The event was launched in reaction to Financial Director’s revelations that the number of female FTSE-100 CFOs had recently fallen, alongside research from Bronzegate showing the pipeline for female finance leaders across the FTSE 350 had stalled for the last three years.

Dame Helena Morrissey, head of personal Investing at Legal & General Investment Management, who founded the 30% Club to raise female boardroom participation, gave a keynote speech to start the event.

Reflecting on her own experiences of initial hostility toward the 30% campaign, which has resulted in nearly a third of FTSE 250 board members being women, she said: “One FTSE chairman accused me of trying to destroy British business.”

Relating to the drop-off in the number of women in FTSE C-suite positions, demonstrated in last week’s report of the Hampton-Alexander review that identified just 12 female CEOs in the FTSE-350, she said: “The issue requires a look at how we work, the cultures within our business, how we reward and consider the definition of success.”

The debate needed is not just examining the challenges to women, but also the wider issues in the gender equality equation, said Dame Helena. “Rightly we’ve been concentrating on encouraging women’s progression, but if we don’t do something about what it means to be a man, and a successful man, including playing a bigger role in bringing up a family, we are going to be resigning ourselves to incremental progress.”

Dame Helena said this was vital because companies needed to build a diverse and inclusive culture to address the huge challenges thrown up by the fast-changing business environment. She said: “Those firms that don’t get the importance of diversity of talent and inclusive environments are going to lose out on their top male young talent as well as women.”

“Young men expect to play a part in their future family’s upbringing, they expect to work smartly, they expect their company’s values to align with their own. I think we’re at a point of intersection where we embrace this and think about how we recruit, promote and encourage talent to come to the fore and express their own views,” she said.

Having the licence to disagree is at the heart of inclusivity, said Dame Helena. She said part of the solution is “willingness to experiment, to try things out- not to feel wedded to things that you’re doing, so for example if you’ve been doing unconscious bias training, if that doesn’t work, stop doing it. Don’t think that equates to not taking diversity seriously,” she suggested.

She said that in the same way that you would stop a business activity if it wasn’t yielding results, the same approach must be taken with diversity and inclusivity. “We must be bigger, bolder and more ambitious,” she said.

Reflecting the view of the bank of England chief economist Andy Haldane who argues the need for diversity of thought in organisations, Dame Helena said there was a call for a rethink: “If we want a diverse and inclusive team, we have to performance measure outputs, not hours at the desk. A manual for undertaking a root and branch restructuring of how valuable talent is managed is required”, she asserted.

Breadth of opinion

In the following panel discussion, Ann Francke, CEO of the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) said that according to her organisation’s data, “for the last five years, women in managerial positions have been stuck. More women are going to university and getting better grades, getting better jobs and then they drop off. That pattern appears globally.”

But Francke, who is American, added that “finance people in this country have unique power because the UK is place where the CFO rules. It’s the role having access to the CEO and chair roles. That’s because 58% of the FTSE 100 [leaders] have CFO backgrounds. So, I think to change this, people in this room have a very active role to play in this debate,” she said.

“Although diversity makes good business, we need to look at the evidence base, for that,” said Susan Davy, CFO of utility Pennon that owns South-West Water. “What needs to come through is that businesses actually perform better with diversity of view, diversity of opinion- that innovation comes from having those different perspectives on a board, and you’ll see that with results of a company.”

Sharon Doherty, global organisation and people development director at telecoms group Vodafone, said: “There really isn’t a good reason why there shouldn’t be good representation of women in finance.”

She said: “When we implemented a global maternity policy, we had to make a business case as to why that was the right thing to do or not. You don’t create a diverse and inclusive organisation without investment, so that’s where a finance director can have a longer-term mindset,” she said.

Charlotte Jones, CFO of Jupiter Fund Management, talked of the return of equity that comes from having not just a diverse board but a diverse workforce, and diversity in the way of operating the business.”

Offering a personal perspective, Nina Barakzai, head of data privacy of FMCG giant Unilever, described her career journey, in particular the need to have good mentors. “I needed to spot and plan who would help me, and then make sure I was in the right place at the right time.

“It was really careful planning, and some of that development of diversity and inclusion is the safety of knowing you’ve got some of those next steps scoped out,” said Barakzai, who is also president of In-Counsel Worldwide.

Adam Akbar, MD of Bronzegate, argued that finance leaders are a key part of the story in driving diversity and inclusivity in their organisations. “The CFOs are the CEOs and chairs of the future and are so instrumental in decision-making,” he added.

Tanya Gujral, commercial head of Financial Director, finished the event with an upbeat note. She said there had been some “fantastic takeaways” from the discussion, “something for all of us to keep in mind.”