There is good news for women in board positions at Fortune 500 companies. There are now 26 female CEOs, up from 24 last year - the highest number since Fortune started compiling executive gender in 1998. This is obviously still a paltry proportion, but it at least suggests some semblance of progress, passing the 5% mark for the first time. In terms of the finance function, the numbers are slightly better. There are now 58 female CFOs at Fortune 500s, up from 57 in 2013, although this still represents only just over 10%.
The slow progress is baffling considering the clear advantages of having women in board level positions. Research from McKinsey has shown that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15% more likely to have financial returns above the national median for their industry, while those that had a racially and ethnically diverse group were 30% more likely.
Finance is a world known for its Type A personalities - men hungry for power and money, and evidence seems to bare this out when it comes to CFOs. According to Wake Forest University and University of North Carolina-Wilmington researchers, female CFOs are less tempted to employ riskier tax-avoidance measures and other potentially illegal tactics to increase profits. It would be easy to blame the lack of women in the C-suite on competitive men resistant to change attempting to keep women out at all costs - partly because this is likely true in many cases - but is this the sole reason?
It is likely that the issues actually start far earlier, with maths and sciences still seen as masculine subjects, and the humanities more feminine. A report based on PISA 2012 data, The ABC of Gender Equality in Education, found that girls, even high-achieving girls, are more likely to express strong feelings of anxiety towards mathematics, and the number of boys studying maths at university is still far higher than the number of girls. Much of this is likely down to attitudes passed down from teachers and parents. Solving this and increasing the pool of talent available requires a massive shift in attitude across society.
There are signs that attitudes are changing at the top, at least. The big tech companies have shown themselves to be far more willing to take women into board level positions. Microsoft’s Amy Hood, for one, has proven a great success. Analysts have praised her for her cost-control savvy and ability to communicate with investors, and she has led a number of Microsoft’s acquisitions, including that of Skype. Ruth Porat, former Wall Street banker turned CFO of Google, is expected to make at least $70m in her first two years at the tech behemoth, and her status has been significantly improved thanks to Google’s stellar Q2 earnings, which sent stocks soaring 11%.
The more opportunities that women get, and the more success that they see, the more girls who will be encouraged to enter the field from a younger age. Not only this, but it will show men in the boardroom who have perhaps been resistant to appointing women to boards because they don’t believe that they will be able to work with them, that they have the capability to improve their company.