Constance Minc, chief financial officer at IFS, explains how mentoring can help elevate women in finance.
For women, doubts can be raised through the process. A decision about whether or not to study accountancy can be impacted by the knowledge that the vast majority of CFOs (just under 90% according to research from Crist Kolder Associates) are men. The lack of visible role models for women thinking of taking on a finance post will act as a deterrent for many.
The challenge certainly continues in the workplace though, and mentoring and support needs to be applied on an ongoing basis, especially when women working in finance look to rise through the ranks. Equileap’s Gender Equality Report & Ranking Report 2021 found that while women represent 50% of the workforce in financial companies globally, the representation of women remains low in higher levels of management, with an average of 26% women on the board of directors, 18% women on the executive team, and 28% women in senior management.
These are figures that demonstrate clearly that while mentoring at an early stage is important, this support must be present throughout a woman’s career to ensure that when the time comes they do not feel that they need to choose between a career and a family. Mentoring, in other words, needs to be about retention, not just recruitment and onboarding.
Mentoring facilitates and supports diversity
The kind of mentoring outlined above can play a key supporting role to women working in finance, but perhaps, even more so, if like myself they are working in finance within a technology context, where there are generally few female role models to help show the way.
I speak from personal experience. I wish I had had a mentor, or more specifically, a role model, when I was making my way into the corporate world and into finance. I wish I had been fortunate enough to have an experienced guide who had been through what I was about to go through, a voice of experience, someone in whom I could see ‘the future me’.
A mentor could have foreseen there would be “nice” but “chaotic” Monday mornings to deal with from actively participating in a family environment, something that a working mother has to embrace but I could still have the happiness of having a family and also a rewarding career.
A mentor could have taken me aside and said the reality is it’s going to be hectic but incredibly fulfilling. Mentors that can speak with the wisdom of experience have a vital role as guides to women in navigating the choppy waters of the corporate world.
Providing reassurance and support
Many women in finance face daunting challenges: from entrenched attitudes, and the inevitable ‘imposter syndrome’ that a lack of positive role models gives rise to.
Career breaks to build a family can also be challenging. Returning to the office after maternity leave, for example, can feel confusing and alienating when the business has gone through significant change. A mentor can help in providing support and reassurance, based on their own experience, and in highlighting the challenges they might face and solutions that might work. Going beyond even that, mentors can help give women in finance the confidence to believe: ‘It can be done, it is not a question of if, but when.’
An approach that works
The evidence suggests mentoring drives diversity by helping support women and minorities to achieve their business goals. Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations found that mentoring programmes boosted minority representation at the management level by 9% to 24% (compared to -2% to 18% with other diversity initiatives). The same study found that these programmes also dramatically improved promotion and retention rates for minorities and women – 15% to 38% as compared to non-mentored employees.
First steps on the road
I’d encourage women to come forward to mentor other women within a finance function or wider organisation and to reach out to their employers to support the facilitation of this. This could be done on an informal basis with the opportunity for regular check-ins between mentor and mentee, a review of progress, and an open discussion of progress and achievement. Simply by engaging with other women in the business in this way, we can take on the status of role model.
Monthly check-ins on progress across the entire initiative from both mentors and mentees could also be put in place. Benchmarking goals could be established, alongside regular check-ins to ensure they’re on track. A reverse mentoring relationship may even naturally evolve from these processes, enabling the mentor to also benefit from the knowledge and understanding of the mentee, which can help build leadership qualities.
Whatever the precise approach taken, an honest and genuine mentoring relationship will add tremendous value for women working in any finance or financial technology role. It is important for women to take the initiative and kick-start a mentoring process within their own business but both mentor and mentee should be confident in the knowledge that they are not alone in this endeavour.
Building a wider network
The retention of women also relies on networking. Across the industry, we are increasingly seeing groups and associations forming to promote the interests of women in finance, from the UK’s Women in Banking & Finance right through to the Financial Women’s Association, a New York-based network of female professionals from various sectors of the financial world. With the awareness that this kind of support is behind them, I am confident that more women working in finance will be encouraged into leadership roles.
Informal networking can be just as invaluable. Building a close group of women that can rely on one another is invaluable. With that, together with mentoring, both formal and informal, the numbers of those having long successful careers in this industry should increase, businesses would benefit from a gender-equal finance function, and we would see a significant increase in the retention of women in finance roles.