This interview with Sandra Rapacioli Sustainability and Leadership Specialist at C.I.M.A. ( Chartered Institute of Management Accountants) is the first in a series looking into women’s roles in different global business sectors.
Sandra Rapacioli is responsible for producing and promoting thought leadership within C.I.M.A., with a special interest in the progression of women into senior roles. She has been involved in the commissioning of a report Breaking Glass: Strategies for Tomorrow’s Leaders within the finance function.
DD: What are the main issues facing women in the finance function in business and industry today?
SR: Worldwide CIMA has 71,657 members. 26,366 (31%) are female members and 45,291 (43%) are female students, in a total of 168 countries. This is a significant percentage. The proportion of CIMA female fellows (members with considerable leadership experience) varies across the globe. But with women now making up a third of CIMA’s members and just under half of CIMA’s students, our female members are six times less likely than male members to be in senior roles such as CFO or CEO. The women we spoke to have identified two main challenges in their careers: the problem of achieving a satisfying work-life balance, and the difficulty of being taken seriously in male dominated businesses. This should be surprising because as part of a management team, management accountants are increasingly required to tap into their soft skills to persuade and influence the other stakeholders in their organisations. This requires trust and empathy, qualities women traditionally exhibit in considerable measure.
DD: Do you feel there is overt discrimination?
SR: While few of the women we spoke to in the preparation of the report felt they had suffered from direct discrimination, some had definitely come face to face with strong prejudices. All acknowledged that it was difficult for a woman to succeed and earn respect in male dominated industries, often due to entrenched attitudes and stereotypes. Some members found they simply had to stay positive in the face of these barriers. Other members working in more transparent company cultures felt that opportunities are generally greater. Our research suggests that it’s actually easier for women to succeed in some Asian countries, despite a few of our members in this region telling us that they had struggled with some outdated attitudes about the role of women.
DD: Why are Asian women finding it easier to succeed?
SR: In many parts of Asia the extended family is very strong and childcare arrangements are easier with grandparents and other family members living locally.
DD:What advice are you giving your female members?
SR: The successful women we interviewed employ a range of strategies – in addition to working hard, to help them succeed. These ranged from setting clear career goals and using mentors to help promote themselves within the organisation and externally. We definitely advise them to seek support, although with an absence of women at a senior level, most of the mentoring is carried out by men. We also advise our members to improve their networking skills by joining female networking groups – both internal and external. Raising individual profiles within their organisations is also one of our key strategies to success. Self promotion is something else we have also advocated, but that also doesn’t come easily to many women.
DD: What else do you recommend women members do?
SR: We recommend that all women members plan their careers path in detail and create a strategy – focusing on short-term and long-term goals to factor in all organisational eventualities: for example ensuring backup childcare and prioritising daily tasks, delegating where appropriate.
DD: What did you identify that organisations could do to redress this balance?
SR: All research indicates that when women represent 30% of any group, financial performance is increased and that companies should acknowledge that there is an existence of bias in recruitment, so we are suggesting to HR departments and organisations that they do a number of things : set performance targets for female retention and promotion and not only reconsider the composition of selection teams for leadership roles but also encourage women to apply for any leadership positions. We want companies to invest in leadership development and training opportunities for high potential women by encouraging the identification and understanding of relevant career paths and supporting the necessary stepping-stones for leadership roles. We would also like to see the completion of career potential analysis for all women leaders.
DD: How far do you believe women are from achieving parity in your sector?
SR: We have a long way to go, but we are certainly taking the necessary steps to make this happen.