“While 15 percent is better than it was 10 years ago, at this rate of change we won’t have equality for several more decades,” Ashkenazi said. “None of us should be satisfied. We should strive for more…. It’s going to require a more focused effort going forward.”
Below are some of the key takeaways from our discussion with these three female CFOs.
Opening up the finance leadership pipeline for women
For many organizations, overall talent pools have begun to approach something close to gender parity; the leaders on our panel pointed to areas within their finance functions with 50-50 female and male representation. However, the low overall numbers at the top leadership level belie the fact that the path to leadership for women remains strewn with hurdles.
Miller said that culture is the key — and in particular, a culture that truly wants and believes in changing the status quo when it comes to gender diversity.
“We operate in a traditionally more male-dominated industry, and I think that the culture here has played a big role in beginning the shift on that,” Miller said. “It’s about active dialogue, calling the issue out, and really making sure [candidate] slates are representative. We measure it, and we're really serious about it.”
An introspective culture also matters when so many of the hurdles are structural. For one, Ashkenazi said, people tend to hire those with whom they feel most comfortable, and who are like them, unconscious biases that required focused effort to overcome.
Further, if “the right experience” is required — particularly if that means past CFO experience — then most women will enter the picture at an inherent disadvantage when men overwhelmingly hold those jobs. McDonough, who became Rivian’s CFO after a career in investment banking at J.P. Morgan, said that this is why boards and leaders need to look beyond someone who has sat in the CFO chair before, and instead use capability to step into the CFO role as the qualification criteria.
“Executives, leadership teams and boards need to champion change to look for those core attributes,” McDonough said. “What will allow you to take a chance on a new CFO, take a chance on a woman, who may be stepping into a new industry or a new role?”
Ashkanazi reflected that women often feel that they need to check every single box in order to qualify for a new role. But having 75 to 80 percent of the needed experience, she said, may be more than enough to give them confidence when paired with their intellectual horsepower, agility and commitment. Miller added that it’s important that women don’t spend 80 percent of their time on the 20 percent where you need more experience.
“It's jumping in and believing in yourself; even if you have a few doubts, that's fine,” Miller said. “Move forward and demonstrate confidence, not arrogance. Have the right people around you and don't be afraid to observe others and learn from them.”
Sponsorship vs. mentorship
Ashkenazi pointed to sponsorship as a central element of increasing women’s representation in finance leadership, something that both Miller and McDonough agreed with. Sponsors, she said, are people who guide a person throughout her career; unlike a mentor offering advice, sponsors play an active, participatory role in advocating with stakeholders to accelerate and push a career forward.
She said a sponsor needs to be senior enough to be able to have influence and be willing to speak on your behalf when you’re not in the room.
“It’s a challenge because you can't just walk up to an executive in your firm and ask them to be a sponsor,” Ashkenazi said. “They have to believe in your skills, so somehow they need to be exposed to the work you do, your skills and talent, and what you bring to the organization. When they see what you bring to the team, then that’s an opportunity for them to speak up on your behalf.”
A sponsor or mentor can help push you toward a job that you are qualified for — even if you may not believe it yourself, Miller said.
“A good mentor or sponsor helps you get out of your own head,” Miller said. “Finding somebody who will just take a bet on you and put you into a big position, even though maybe you haven't ‘checked all the boxes,’ either in your mind or other people’s…. If we can be more vocal and deliberate about how we place people and where we take bets on people and how we help them, that will help.”
Of course, the confidence to be your own best advocate has been a key attribute for all three women on our panel. McDonough said that she had specifically focused on building the confidence to, in the right way, advocate for her own career journey.
“It’s about raising your hand, being more vocal, putting yourself out there, leading more of the process,” McDonough said. “It’s understanding that I didn't have to have the perfect answer. If I waited until it was perfect, we had already moved on in the conversation. If I said something confidently and with authority, people listened.”
Leading from positions of strength and resiliency
The balance between work and life, and specifically the tension between personal relationships, building a family and forging a career path, has played a front and center role in both the professional and personal trajectories for all three of our panelists.
McDonough, who has preschool-aged children, said it requires “thick skin” to power through the occasions when work and life collide, and being strong enough to manage it. “It can be a difficult juggling act, but if know you want it, and you lean into it, you can certainly pull it off.”
Miller, whose kids are now in their 20s, decided early on that she would set boundaries that allow her to bring her best to both work and home. “It was figuring out how to negotiate, navigate, set those boundaries and then deliver, while you keep moving forward.”
Ashkenazi said she made specific choices in her career to ensure she prioritized both family and work, knowing that there was no perfect way to do it, and that it may require making some compromises. In the conclusion of the discussion, when asked for a mantra she uses every day as continued motivation to “do it all,” she referenced the energy she gains from her family.
“Everyone who's a parent, and this applies to men and women, your kids are going to be proud of you,” she said. “I think sometimes we feel bad, like, oh, we should have been here or there, but your kids know what you do and why you do it, and they see it. They’re resilient. And they’re proud of what you do.”