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4 ways to advocate for women in finance teams

Alejandra Buentello
Alejandra Buentello CFO Connect

Corporate finance is severely lagging behind other departments when it comes to gender diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

According to a Gartner study, women make up 52% of finance employees, but only 40% of senior roles. Going further, Deloitte found that there’s little female representation in the C-suite and even less in CFO positions.

So what can be done to improve equity and opportunities for women within finance?

CFO Connect hosted a webinar featuring finance leaders from around the world to discuss how to advocate for women in finance, and their own experiences in the industry.

You can watch the replay here, or keep reading for panel highlights.

About the experts

Solène Brebant - Solène is an investor at London-based Balderton Capital, a venture capital fund that invests in European founders in fintech, retail, cybersecurity, food, climate, and many other sectors.  

Vulnavia Gura - Vulnavia is Head of Finance at Bash, a fashion and lifestyle shopping platform that makes fashion available to people wherever they are. Vulnavia has 14 years’ experience in finance across different sectors, the last five in e-commerce technology. Vulnavia is based in Cape Town, South Africa.

Joyce Mackenzie Liu - Joyce has spent the last 20 years in finance and has done it all: corporate finance, banking, private equity, venture capital, and entrepreneurship. She’s a Modern CFO and the founder and CEO of Pegafund, which provides CFO services and leadership upskilling to high-growth SaaS businesses. Joyce is based in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

How to address and improve gender diversity in finance

Most experts will readily agree that gender diversity is a noble goal, and that finance teams in particular need more women in influential roles. But we’re yet to see broad change or major improvement in the level of representation in real companies.

Our experts shared excellent tips and their unique perspectives on how to combat the lack of diversity in the workplace and the corporate finance industry. 

  1. Implement practical DE&I initiatives

“It’s a herculean task to bring everybody to an equitable starting point. It’s difficult and it will take time and a lot of partnership; it’s not just for one entity.” - Vulnavia Gura

According to the panelists, the first step to countering a lack of gender diversity in the workplace is to set up a robust DE&I policy. 

Solène’s top tip? Build DE&I into your OKRs. That way, there’s clear accountability. Especially coming from the venture capital world, she encourages companies in her portfolio to diversify their boards and leadership teams.

Joyce leans on the data: “The data illustrates that more diversity contributes to greater value creation.” 

“A recent report said that of the best-performing SaaS companies to receive funding, the top 25% had more female executives.” In her view, data will be the most important lever to initiate change in the finance industry.

Vulnavia says that the government has a role to play as well. “In South Africa, the government has published specific regulations to try and address equity. My company has taken this initiative and looks at ownership, management, skills, and socio-economic development, then we use that scorecard to identify and earmark projects that are going to give us the highest score, which in turn allows us to redress these issues. 

“We try and see how we can practically address these government mandates internally.”

  1. Create women-friendly policies

Gender equality in finance is clearly a work in progress. But the panelists have some concrete ideas about how to make the workplace more inclusive. 

One topic that came up is parental leave for new parents. It will take a combination of government efforts and company policies to ensure that women and men aren’t penalized professionally if they choose to have children.

Solène shares her experience at her current job, and she’s optimistic about where the tech industry is heading: 

“Men and women at Balderton have the same amount of time off. They strongly encourage the fathers to take the full six months of paternity leave. For women, it’s positive if men also have a significant amount of time off after the birth of a child. The tech industry supports paternity leave. So there are positive things happening!”

For Vulnavia, the outlook is less rosy. “We do not have that in South Africa. Men can take ten days for parental leave, women can take up to four months. But the salary whittles down, so most people can’t take the full four months. I’m hopeful that it will get better, but it comes down to company policy. It’s difficult for corporations to justify giving this to employees.”

Joyce adds: “Most countries don’t have an equal system for men and women. We need compensation from the government, but that usually doesn’t cover the cost of daycare. Companies can create systems around it: support services, flexible work, hybrid models. A traditional industry is hard to manage with a child. It’s not going to happen overnight, but it’s worth the effort.”

  1. Encourage mentorship

Something that all three panelists agreed on was the importance of mentorship. It’s important to both find your own mentor and consider mentoring others. Data shows that mentoring relationships improve employee retention, and employees who have mentors are more satisfied with their jobs. 

In terms of being a mentor yourself? Sometimes it’s just a question of advocating for someone else. 

Solène says: “The more senior you are, the more support you can give to junior people in your company. We might need more validation and proof of credibility sometimes. You can give credibility to junior people by saying that what they said was useful or relevant or brought something interesting to the conversation. Show the group that their contribution is credible. It’s a small way you can help.”

Sharing her own experience, Joyce says: “I’ve always had informal mentors or advisors, mostly men. They’re further along in life and in their careers. They supported me not because I’m a woman or Asian, but because I have a growth mindset. 

“Identify people who are 10, 20 years older than you, who’ve made the mistakes you might make. They’ll open doors and windows for you. And in return, what they get back is a different perspective that they can share with others in their lives.”

And Solène believes in the power of a support system of people your own age. “I think it’s important to have mentors, but also groups of ambitious people, men or women, who are the same age as you. You can talk about similar challenges that you’re facing. It’s a community worth building.”

How to find a mentor

How exactly do you find groups or mentors to help you in your career?

Joyce suggests networking: “You have to hustle! You find them largely through your university network. In this sense, education is very important. And in the workplace, people that you connect with who are further along in their career. There are people willing to mentor who don’t care about titles or wealth, but rather passing on knowledge to the next generation.”

Vulnavia adds: “I want to echo the hustling tip. I’ve asked random strangers that I’ve liked, some my age, some older. Your mentor doesn’t have to be a superstar in a field. It can be someone who’s lived long enough to see you’re making a mistake. Have someone who helps you with your personality, because you carry that with you. You need someone to give you perspective.”

  1. Address compensation and close the pay gap

CFO Connect’s salary benchmark found that women in finance are paid on average 13% than their male counterparts. In some countries, this gap jumps to 30%. So what’s the best way to go about eliminating the gender gap?

Once again, Joyce believes in the power of data to monitor and address the pay gap. 

“It’s quantitative: having the data and benchmarks to support different types of roles and the skills that they warrant. That’s a lot of value in that, you’re focused on meritocracy and performance. Publish compensation reports, because it’s hard to argue with data

“And on the qualitative side, or soft skills side: work on communication and negotiation skills to ask for what you deserve. Often our own bias against ourselves hurts us; we need to prove that we’ve earned it. We have to demonstrate that we get a seat at the table, whereas men just go after it. They may not even have the skills, but they do it. In this way, women can aspire to learn from men in the same way that men can learn from women.

“Have the unapologetic boldness to go after what you deserve. Your mentor or advisor can help you work on the soft skills.”

The future of women in finance

Advocating for women in finance will take a combination of government and company policies, plus action on an individual level. And while things are evolving, it will still take time to implement sweeping changes, especially in big organizations. 

Our talented panelists are working hard to spread the word and make finance a more equitable place for diverse profiles. Thank you so much to these three leaders for sharing their insights with the CFO Connect community. 

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