In 18th century London, women ran their own businesses — that is, until the defeated British Army returned from its former colony, whereupon the women were summarily fired. After World War II, Rosie the Riveter patriotically abandoned her welder for a blender. Society has changed tremendously since then, but Mommy Wars are once more making headlines.
Our cover story this month ("What Women Want") marks the third time since 1995 that we've looked at the issue of women in finance. Although the percentage of women CFOs in very large companies has more than tripled since then, the overall numbers are still low — 35 versus 10. The increase looks even less impressive when you consider that women make up more than half of entry-level accountants (and far more than half of executive assistants in finance departments; see Your Move).
Our survey results and interviews tell some unexpected stories. Women may step aside for family or philanthropy or because they've earned enough to retire early. Men refuse transfers almost as often as their female counterparts, insist on paternity leave, and balk at working excessive hours. Expectations for both sexes have changed. Sallie Krawcheck jumped back in to a top job at Citigroup after dropping out for motherhood. Tom Cruise boasts about changing diapers. If there remains such a thing as a glass ceiling, it's difficult to ascertain what props it up.
Nonetheless, real parity in the C-suite may never arrive. You can't blame it on an aptitude for math; women queried for this story all love numbers. You can't point the finger at blatantly sexist attitudes, either. Whether the reason lies in collective choice or subtle pressures, we may never fully understand. But two points are increasingly clear: first, the men and women who make CFO are far more alike than different; and second, through their willingness to choose their personal lives over work, women have made it easier for men to do the same.