"Progress," Vincent van Gogh once said, "is like miners' work: it doesn't advance as quickly as one should like, [or] as others expect."
Words to remember, perhaps, as one contemplates the advancement of women into the CFO post, because after years of steady progress the pace has unexpectedly and dramatically slowed. We've tracked the percentage of CFO spots held by women at the country's largest firms for more than a decade, and over the past three years the gains have been minimal. In 1995 women held just 2% of the CFO posts at the country's 500 largest firms; this year they hold about 9%, a figure virtually unchanged from 2007 and 2008.
As senior writer Kate O'Sullivan notes in "Power Struggle," the possible reasons for this plateauing are both numerous and subtle. Work/life balance certainly poses a challenge, something that both the men and women who responded to our survey on this subject agreed on. Structural barriers also factor in: if the boards that play such a crucial role in selecting CFOs are dominated by men, to pick one example, will they tend, however unconsciously, to give the nod to one of their own?
And then there is the recession, which, depending on your point of view, will either galvanize companies to think beyond the status quo or to cling to it. Wall Street, long a conspicuous avenue of advancement for women in senior finance roles, has imploded. The ripple effects are profound: in addition to the loss of actual jobs (not to mention entire companies), recruitment, mentoring, and research programs have been scaled back, if not abandoned altogether.
Harsh realities, to be sure, for any woman who aspires to the top. Fortunately, a new realism has taken hold among women themselves as they map their careers. They have a more sophisticated sense of how to acquire the skills and experiences they need, of the sacrifices they must make, and of the many balancing acts they must perform. Our guess is that whatever the "new normal" resulting from this recession may be, that 9% figure cited above won't be part of it.