Susannah Swihart was in midsentence when the sound first went off. The CFO and recently named vice chairman of $71.4 billion (in assets) BankBoston Corp. was describing the bank's recent internal-fraud troubles for a group of journalists when the steady beep, beep filled the room. "Oh, that's my daughter's Tamagotchi," she said. "I'm supposed to be taking care of it today. But I think it just died."
Swihart calmly switched off the electronic toy and, after a hearty laugh, returned to the business at hand. Like many other female CFOs, Swihart is extremely comfortable in a role that not too many years ago was accessible to only a handful of women. But as the Tamagotchi incident shows, she also believes being CFO doesn't mean forgetting she is a woman, or a parent for that matter.
Swihart's ease can be partly attributed to the fact that she doesn't have to play pioneer anymore. Whereas only 10 women held the CFO post at a Fortune 500 company in 1995 (see "Uncommon Women," August 1995), 23 now have the title, according to a survey conducted by CFO magazine. And 7 of those 23 act as CFO at Fortune 100 companies: Heidi Miller, executive vice president and CFO of $38 billion Travelers Group (soon-to-be CFO of the combined Citigroup); Marie L. Knowles, executive vice president and CFO of $25.3 billion Atlantic Richfield; Judy C. Lewent, senior vice president and CFO of $23.6 billion Merck; Judith Sprieser, senior vice president and CFO of $20 billion Sara Lee; Pamela K. Knous, executive vice president and CFO of $16.5 billion SuperValu; Karen Hoguet, senior vice president and CFO of $15.7 billion Federated Department Stores; and Marianne Parrs, senior vice president and CFO of $14.1 billion International Paper.
For Swihart and the others, the 130 percent increase in Fortune 500 female CFOs can be attributed to several factors — progressive corporate policies, cultural changes, gender-sensitive recruiting, more women forcing their way up the finance pipeline, and the sheer demand for finance talent. Says Chad Gifford, CEO of BankBoston, "I didn't choose her because she's a woman, although I do appreciate the diversity she adds. I didn't give a hoot that she's a woman. Maybe that I didn't care is a subtle message about how things have changed. It's a competitive world, and to get the best people you have to look beyond white males."
That attitude is apparent at all levels of finance. Sixty-six of the Fortune 500 companies, in fact, now have female treasurers, compared with 63 in 1995, and 53 have female controllers, compared with 35 three years ago. In addition, the women are being recognized for their talents in the most obvious way possible — their paychecks. Of the 23 female CFOs in the Fortune 500, 9 are listed among the top five wage earners at their firms, with an average salary and bonus of $653,612.
Still, the gains have to be put in context. While a 130 percent increase is undoubtedly cause for optimism, female executives are quick to point out that they make up less than 5 percent of Fortune 500 CFOs. "It's like earnings at small firms," says Susan Koski-Grafer, vice president of professional development and technical activities at the Financial Executives Institute, a professional association of senior financial executives, in Morristown, New Jersey. "It's easy to double when the numbers are small." The numbers are also less impressive when they are extrapolated out into the Fortune 1,000. There, only 37 women hold the position of CFO, up from 24 in 1995 — an indication, say some observers, that the less "public" public firms may not be as focused on diversity. Overall, while most observers are pleased with the steady progress being made, many, like Irene Esteves, CFO of money-management firm Putnam Investments Inc., in Boston, believe "it will be 10 years, at least, before we see a major shift in the number of female executives."
Gaining the Edge
Surprisingly, most of the women interviewed actually downplay the role of gender in their careers. "Generally, the things that make a woman successful are the same things that make a man successful," Esteves says. "I can't point to anything that hurt me because I was a woman, or that helped me because I was a woman. I'm sure there were plenty of both, but I was never aware of them." Others even consider discussion of their gender irrelevant. Lewent, for example, has long avoided the subject. And Heidi Kunz, CFO of $8.8 billion diversified manufacturer ITT Industries Inc., in White Plains, New York, laments, "I'll be happy the day statistics like this [the number of female CFOs] aren't news anymore."
There's no denying, however, that female CFOs are hot commodities. In a corporate world — especially in the Fortune 500 — where shareholders and customers alike are urging diversity, says Susan Landon, a partner at LAI Ward Howell, a New Yorkbased executive recruiter, "CEOs demand that recruiters show them diverse slates." In fact, says Peter Crist, president of Chicago-based recruiters Crist Partners, almost every time a client hires him to search for a new CFO, it specifically requests female candidates. "I don't even need to ask," he says. "I know if I find a female candidate the client will be happy." To meet the demand, Crist keeps an updated database of nearly all female finance executives, including their areas of expertise and salary histories. The result, he says, is that he has placed women in 10 to 15 percent of the top financial-executive searches he's conducted in the past few years.
The female executives are well aware of their marketability. For example, since Swihart was named CFO of BankBoston, she has became a fixture on every major executive recruiter's list. "I get calls like crazy," she says of the constant barrage of recruiter inquiries. And Diane Price Baker points out that female CFOs are almost hunted these days. Case in point: After leaving her position as CFO of the world's largest department store, R.H. Macy & Co., Price Baker had not even started looking for a new position when she was offered the job of CFO of The New York Times Co. (which she held until this past April), while she was doing volunteer work in Ecuador.
What's helped translate demand for female CFOs into jobs in the past three years, says Landon, is that "women have become very proactive about their careers. They've figured out that to move to the CFO office, you need line experience, and they've sought out those roles." On her way to CFO, for example, Sprieser was named president and CEO of the Sara Lee Bakery division, where she went out on the floor two days a month and actually made pies. Similarly, Knowles, CFO of oil and gas giant Atlantic Richfield Co., did her share in the field during her 16 different assignments with ARCO, including stints as a crude-oil trader and president of an operating company. And Hoguet worked for a year as a buyer, which, at Federated Department Stores Inc., "proved to be invaluable in understanding the business," she says.
Appetite for Risk
Such experience, say other women, can be supplemented in several ways to gain an edge on the competition. One is to demonstrate an appetite for risk, and a tolerance for it, says Putnam's Esteves. "You have to go where the bullets are. If you want a high-profile job, you have to go where there's a bigger chance of failing." Esteves did tours at packaged-goods conglomerate SE Johnson & Son Inc. and Miller Brewing Co. before taking on her first CFO role at Putnam. "The opportunity at Putnam was too attractive to turn down. But I charged into an industry I didn't know," she admits.
Price Baker agrees that intentionally taking the difficult path gets women noticed. "People assume men naturally want challenges; women have to seek them out," she points out. By the time she joined The New York Times, Price Baker had already taken Macy's in and out of bankruptcy and helped close the sale of the company to Federated. She also joined the Times at a precarious time. "They were actively working against themselves. They had to recast how they looked at themselves both internally and externally," Price Baker says. During her stint there, the company's stock soared from $21 to $73.
Another important factor is the ability to blow your own horn. "The name of the game is marketing/PR," says Jeannette Hobson, managing partner of Gateway Consulting, in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and former president of the Financial Women's Association of New York and Boston. "Men have done it for years, but women have finally caught on." Agrees Knowles, "They're getting on the same page as men in terms of being visible to the external world. Men do it more naturally, I think, because they're coached by their fathers and seniors. That kind of training and coaching isn't natural for women. But they're learning."
And part of that public relations campaign, says Susan Wang, CFO of Solectron Corp., an electronics manufacturing services firm in Milpitas, California, is making yourself known to the right people. In her previous jobs, she explains, "to get broader experience, I did volunteer work. I'd get my own tasks done in less time, and then complete tasks for my colleagues without taking credit. So when a position came up, they couldn't say that I didn't have the qualifications, because they knew I'd done the tasks."
Of course, it doesn't hurt to "seek out a company that is gender neutral," says V. Ann Hailey, CFO of specialty retailer The Limited Inc., in Columbus, Ohio, who advises women to. "look at the number of senior women already there." Either that, or consider alternatives to the Fortune 1,000, says Linda Havard, CFO of Playboy Enterprises Inc., an entertainment and publishing company in Chicago. "If you want to have an impact," she suggests, "the smaller the company, the more likely you are to succeed. In the bigger companies, there is still a lot of that 'old boy' system. There's still the perception that you don't want to hire a woman, because she'll have a baby and not come back."
Still, any discussion of women in finance has to address whether their progress is simply a natural evolution. The pipeline theory — the idea that since fewer women went into finance 20 or 30 years ago, it is just a matter of time before they claim the coveted senior positions — has been around for years, and is tiresome to some. The theory, however, is subscribed to by most of the women interviewed.
"I'm a strong believer in the pipeline. If equal numbers of men and women didn't start entering finance until the 1990s, we can't expect equal numbers of men and women at higher levels yet," says Gail Lieberman, CFO of Thomson Financial & Professional Publishing Group, in Boston. Adds Knowles, "It takes a while for [women] to have enough experience to compete successfully for CFO-level jobs. But as time goes on, more and more women will have the requisite experience." And Crist is actually banking on the reality of the pipeline theory. "I have a database of people between 35 and their middle 40s with finance experience who make more than $200,000. If they're good, they're going to bubble to the top," he predicts.
One indication that he is right is the evening-out of treasurers and controllers. Three years ago, there were significantly more treasurers in the Fortune 1,000, leading to speculation that women were being shepherded onto the finance track least likely to result in a CFO promotion. Many women in the past have gravitated toward treasury, says the FEI's Koski-Grafer, because "money talks. And in treasury, results are so visible that they transcend gender." Today, however, there are 115 female treasurers and 109 controllers — a trend that Landon believes again illustrates the aggressiveness with which women are managing their careers. "Women have recognized that it is frequently through the control side that CFOs are named, so they've sought out control-side experience to broaden their backgrounds to fully qualify them for the CFO role."
The numbers in the future, however, may be boosted by another pipeline altogether. Anecdotal evidence indicates that high-tech companies — the future Fortune 1,000 — have a disproportionately large percentage of female executives, particularly CFOs. With their young workforces and fast-paced environment, technology companies as a group appear more likely to ignore gender in the quest to find the best people. The reason, says Marian O'Leary, senior vice president and CFO at Security Dynamics Technologies Inc., an information security services firm in Bedford, Massachusetts, is that management teams at high-tech firms tend to be more open-minded and willing to take chances than executives at large, established companies. In addition, high-tech firms tend to attract a younger group that is more likely to go up the ladder gender-blind. "Fifty percent of the people three to five years out of school have already worked for a woman. It's nothing unusual to them," O'Leary says.
Joy Covey, CFO at online book and music store Amazon.com Inc., in Seattle, agrees. As former CFO of Digidesign, a digital audio production systems company, now a division of Avid Technology Inc., Covey took the company public when she was 30. "In the world I run in — high tech, high growth — people are so hungry for talent, gender is not a consideration. There's such a meritocracy," says Covey. "Some Fortune 500 companies place more premium on gray hair than on raw talent."
Real or Perceived Barriers?
Whether the numbers will increase dramatically anytime soon is a matter of great debate among female CFOs — and one that hinges on their perception of gender bias.
Lieberman, for one, stands firmly in the camp that believes obstacles exist only if you let them. "There are no barriers for women. Every barrier is just a challenge. They help you think creatively. If a woman financial executive wants it, the jobs are there for the taking. People have asked me, 'How did you do it? Who helped you?' And I say, 'No one ever helped me. I did it myself.' " ITT Industries's Kunz also believes the responsibility rests on the individual. "In the end, I believe if you do your job, you will succeed."
Teresa Beck, president and former CFO at food and drug retailer American Stores Co., in Salt Lake City, however, believes attitudes and cultural differences still block women from achieving equal success. "I think we are kidding ourselves if we say there are no differences between men and women. We don't train women to believe they can do the things they are capable of, but that's slowly changing. The same men I used to hear say, 'Don't hire women; they cry,' are now begging for more women. Pretty soon it won't be an issue. They will just be begging for good candidates and won't care who they are."
Not surprisingly, it is on the issue of children that women find common ground. While family issues clearly are becoming more important to both sexes, The Limited's Hailey, the mother of an 8-year-old boy, points out that parenthood still affects the careers of women more often than men. "When your children are younger, women and men have different roles when it comes to balancing families," Hailey says. Those issues also drive the bulk of gender bias, says Playboy's Havard, remembering that when she adopted her son, a male co-worker questioned her need for maternity leave. "He wanted to know why I needed time off if I wasn't going to nurse the baby," Havard says.
Indications are, however, that women in finance, like those in other professions, are rethinking their family commitments. In April, for example, Price Baker resigned her position as CFO of The New York Times to be with her son. She plans to adopt another child and stay home until both children are in school full-time. She isn't alone. Joanne Guarnieri, former CFO of Blimpie International Inc., in New York, resigned her position in March to relocate with her family, and Irene Miller, former CFO of New York based bookseller Barnes & Noble Inc., also left her job to be with her family.
Some studies, in fact, have led to speculation that we might actually see fewer women in the pipeline over the next few years. According to a recent survey conducted by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, for example, only 39 percent of women who gave birth while employed at major accounting firms returned to work full-time in 1997, as compared with 63 percent in 1993. Although not all CFOs come from an accounting background, a larger percent get their starts at accounting firms. Therefore the trends in that arena will have an effect on the number of female candidates for CFO jobs in the future.
"There will be limits [to women CFOs in the Fortune 500] because women are realizing that the ability to have a fulfilling career and a personal life involves trade-offs," says Gateway's Hobson. "And some of those trade-offs are more than women are willing to make." On the other hand, the specific women leaving their CFO posts are buoyed by confidence in their own abilities. "I'll be back eventually," Price Baker says, noting that she plans to sit on several boards in the meantime. "The hardest part about being a CFO was just getting that job title the first time," Price Baker says.
For the women who do hold the title, opportunities abound. In fact, says Hobson, "if you consider that the CFO is often the number-two person in a company and some 37 women now have that position in the Fortune 1,000, it's a pretty good vote of confidence." Some, in fact, have already moved up. After serving four years as CFO at American Stores, for example, Teresa Beck was promoted to president in March. Others, such as ARCO's Knowles, speculate that their CFO experience will catapult them into the CEO position in the not-too-distant future.
Several other female CFOs have moved around since CFO surveyed the Fortune 500 in 1995. Pamela Knous, CFO of food distributor and retailer SuperValu Inc. and former CFO of The Vons Cos., a Southern California supermarket chain, and Susan Lester, CFO of U.S. Bancorp and former CFO of Shawmut National Corp., are heading up the finance activities at their second Fortune 500 firms. In February, Edwina Woodbury left her post as CFO of cosmetics giant Avon Products Inc., in New York, to work full-time as the company's executive vice president of business process redesign, where she is responsible for directing Avon's worldwide reengineering and information technology initiatives. And in May, Regina Dolan, senior vice president, CFO, and chief administrative officer of Paine Webber Group Inc., was named to the company's board.
Such success has caused some women to think about their obligation to the next generation of leadership. Beck, for example, started an organization called Women's Initiative Network four years ago that focuses on mentoring and preparing women for the opportunities in front of them. Initially, many women did not want to join. "They thought, 'I've worked so hard to be accepted in a man's world, I don't want to be associated with a group of women,' " she remembers. But now the organization is thriving. On a recent visit to a store, Beck asked a female manager what her career goals were. "She told me, 'You just keep that seat warm.'" Says Beck: "I love it. Younger women just expect their names to be on the list. That's the way it should be."
The 23 female CFOs in the Fortune500.
Lori L. Bossmann
37, CFO, Ace Hardware Corp.
Appointed: September 1997
Previously: Controller, Ace Hardware
Education: BS, Northern Illinois University
"My mentor is Rita Kahle, our previous CFO, who is now executive vice president of distribution and merchandising. Since Ace Hardware is a distributor and does not manufacture or develop any product, our largest asset is our people. And the company values individuals...who can produce results and develop [others]. Rita and I both have those attributes."
Maura J. Clark
39, EVP, CFO, Clark USA
Appointed: August 1995
Previously: VP Finance, North American Life Assurance Co.
Education: BA, Economics, Queen's Univ.
"At the end of the day, it comes down to the people you are working with. I work in a very male-dominated industry — the oil industry. But I'm fortunate to work with a small group of executives of all different backgrounds, strengths, and weaknesses, who all have respect for one another."
42, SVP, CFO, Paine Webber Group Inc.
Appointed: February 1994
Previously: SVP, Director of Finance & Controls, Paine Webber Group; Partner, Ernst & Young
Education: BS, Accounting, St. John's University
"Firms need to be supportive of all personnel, not just women. [They need to nurture them] over the long term through the various stages of their careers and personal lives."
Cheryl A. Francis
44, EVP, CFO, R.R. Donnelley & Sons Inc.
Appointed: October 1995
Previously: Treasurer, FMC Corp.
Education: BS, Cornell University; MBA, University of Chicago
"I try to act as a mentor to other women, but, unfortunately, that's one of the things that [frequently] falls by the wayside when you're putting time into your career. But I [try] to send very positive messages to whomever I touch. I definitely think it is an obligation that women in visible positions have. It's both a blessing and a curse."
Joan S. Freilich
57, EVP, CFO, Consolidated Edison Inc.
Appointed: March 1998
Previously: Director of Admissions, College of New Rochelle
Education: BA, MA, French, Barnard College; MBA, PhD, French Literature, Columbia University
"If the right people are running [a company], they will recognize who the good people are at any level. And if you're open to looking for the best people, you will recognize women who are skilled and who are accomplishing things."
V. Ann Hailey
47, EVP, CFO, The Limited Inc.
Appointed: June 1997
Previously: SVP, CFO, The Pillsbury Co.
Education: BA, University of Georgia; MBA, Harvard University
"I think it's different now than 10 years ago. People used to put women on the list to interview, just to have a woman on the list. Now I have the sense that Corporate America is very serious about actually hiring women."
Karen M. Hoguet
41, SVP, CFO, Treasurer, Federated Department Stores Inc.
Appointed: October 1997
Previously: SVP Planning, Federated
Education: BA, Brown University; MBA, Harvard University
"I stick with the philosophy that hard work and the ability to be flexible pay off. I didn't know where my career would head. I wasn't sure about being sent to a division to be a merchant, but it turned out to be an invaluable experience. Years later, it gave me the opportunity to show what I could really do for the company."
Yon Yoon Jorden
43, VP, CFO, Oxford Health Plans Inc.
Appointed: June 1998
Previously: SVP, CFO, Aera Energy LLC; SVP, CFO, Wellpoint Health Networks Inc.
Education: BS, Accounting, California State University, Los Angeles
"It's easier to be a female CFO today because of the numbers, but also there's more general acceptance from companies, co-workers, and customers because today you see females in every aspect of the business."
Pamela K. Knous
44, EVP, CFO, SuperValu Inc.
Appointed: September 1997
Previously: EVP, CFO, The Vons Cos.
Education: BS, Mathematics; BS, Business Administration, University of Arizona
"I believe each individual is evaluated on his or her performance. Barriers to women are falling down. Individual performance is being recognized."
Marie L. Knowles
51, EVP, CFO, Atlantic Richfield Co.
Appointed: August 1996
Previously: President, ARCO Transportation
Education: BS, MS, Chemical Engineering; MBA, USC
"When I first started, my background in engineering gave me credibility and allowed people to see me in ways in which perhaps they weren't used to seeing women. It gave me the ability to be put on tough projects and to demonstrate my skill."
43, SVP, CFO, ITT Industries Inc.
Appointed: December 1995
Previously: Treasurer, General Motors Corp.
Education: BA, Russian Language, Georgetown University; MBA, Columbia University
"I'm not convinced that women need any different characteristics to be successful. Self-confidence, expertise, flexibility — those are the things everyone needs to be successful."
Susan E. Lester
43, CFO, US Bancorp
Appointed: November 1995
Previously: CFO, Shawmut Bank; CFO, First Bank System
Education: BS, Accounting and Finance, University of Dayton; MBA, University of Chicago
Judy C. Lewent
49, SVP, CFO, Merck & Co.
Appointed: March 1990
Previously: Treasurer, Merck
Education: BS, Economics, Goucher College; MS, Management, MIT Sloan School of Management
"Every once in a while I might sit in a meeting and think I'm the only woman in the room. [But] I've never experienced overt bias. I've never been impeded in anything I wanted to do."
Ellen H. Masterson
47, SVP, CFO, American General Corp.
Appointed: July 1997
Previously: Partner, Coopers & Lybrand LLP
Education: BA, Mathematics, Emory University; MBA, Southern Methodist University
"I spent 23 years in public accounting, when it was [basically] an all-male environment. There I had several mentors, and they were invaluable in understanding the politics and the culture."
Blythe J. McGarvie
41, EVP, CFO, Hannaford Bros. Co.
Previously: Chief Administrative Officer, Pacific Rim, Sara Lee Corp.
Education: BA, MBA, Northwestern University
"People need to decide — whether they are male or female — what they want to achieve. And if [women] are interested in being chief financial officers and are willing to continue to learn and stay current about what it takes to add value, especially shareholder value, I think the prognosis [for more women to be promoted to CFOs] is very positive."
46, EVP, CFO, Kohl's Department Stores Inc.
Appointed: October 1994
Previously: Controller, Kohl's
Education: BA, Accounting, University of Northern Iowa
"When I graduated, I was one of three women in the accounting field. For years it wasn't a field that women typically went into. Women gave up their careers for their kids. Now there's a lot more balancing and a lot more available from a young-child-care standpoint. Women can have a career as well as be good moms."
Heidi G. Miller
45, EVP, CFO, Travelers Group (soon-to-be CFO, Citigroup)
Previously: Managing Director, Emerging Markets Structured Finance Group, Chemical Bank
Education: BA, Princeton University; PhD, History, Yale University
"I'm not surprised that the number [of women CFOs] has doubled. Timing is part of it. Companies want to diversify. But there is also a critical mass [of women] with the right skills. That makes it harder for a dominant male culture [to ignore them]. The numbers make it more comfortable for everyone."
54, SVP, CFO, International Paper Co.
Appointed: August 1995
Previously: VP, Tax, International Paper
Education: BA, History, Brown University
"I set my sights on a CFO role because I enjoy finance. But CFOs today also have to drive strategy. And over time there's been a greater realization that if you have a greater diversity of backgrounds, you're likely to get better solutions."
Ann Greer Rector
40, SVP, CFO, Owens & Minor Inc.
Appointed: September 1996
Previously: VP, Controller, USAir Group Inc.
Education: BS, Business, George Mason University
Judith A. Sprieser
44, SVP, CFO, Sara Lee Corp.
Appointed: November 1994
Previously: President, CEO, Sara Lee Bakery North America
Education: BA, Linguistics; MBA, Northwestern University
"We're still woefully underrepresented in this function from what I see of qualified candidates out there. It surprises me to walk into a room of senior business executives and see more than a few women. It's still an overwhelmingly male population."
Susannah M. Swihart
43, Vice Chairman, CFO, BankBoston Corp.
Appointed: July 1997 (Vice Chairman: June 1998)
Previously: Chief of Staff, BankBoston
Education: AB, Harvard University; MBA, Harvard Business School
"Women manage differently, communicate differently, lead differently. What is seen as aggressive in men can be seen as pushy in women. It's not right, but it happens. Women need to learn to play off their strengths."
Marie J. Toulantis
44, CFO, Barnes & Noble Inc.
Appointed: July 1997
Previously: EVP Finance, Chase Manhattan Bank
Education: BS, Business, Pace University
"The critical factors [in reaching the CFO level] are a lot of hard work and the achievement of a certain skill set. [Barnes & Noble's] chairman is very supportive of women in business, and is the type of boss who encourages you to do your best."
47, SVP, CFO, Solectron Corp.
Appointed: November 1986
Previously: Held financial and accounting positions at Xerox Corp. and Westvaco Corp.
Education: BA, Accounting, University of Texas; MBA, University of Connecticut
"Balancing career and family affects men as well [as women], but from a woman's perspective there's guilt laid on us in our early years that stays with us. You need to surround yourself with good support, including a good babysitter and a good assistant."