International Women's Day: Is Money Still a Man's Job?

According to a 2021 Deloitte India survey, only 3.9 per cent of CFOs were women. It was up from 2.5 per cent in 2018

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By Paromita Gupta

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"There's something so special about a woman who dominates in a man's world. It takes a certain grace, strength, intelligence, fearlessness and the nerve to never take no for an answer," the Barbadian pop and r&b singer Rihanna once said while paying homage to Amelia Earhart in 2017.

Over the course of nine decades, since Earhart made the nonstop solo transatlantic flight, women have entered and eventually disrupted several male-dominated industries and professions, including medicine, politics, military, sports, and business.

India boastfully ranks third for the largest startup ecosystems in the world, with Leena Nair (CEO, Chanel), Sharmistha Dubey (CEO, Match Group), Amrapali Gan (CEO, OnlyFans), and Anjali Sud (CEO, Vimeo) calling the shots at the global level.

However, while women have climbed the executive levels to head companies in the country and continue to do so, the number is still alarmingly low. According to the latest National Stock Exchange data, only 100 companies out of 2000 listed had women as their managing directors or CEOs.

The matter is more concerning when it comes to handling money when it comes to Chief Financial Officers. According to a 2021 Deloitte India survey, only 3.9 per cent of CFOs were women. It was up from 2.5 per cent in 2018.

Crist Kolder Volatility Report states that per cent of women, CFOs has grown from 6.3 per cent in 2004 to 16 per cent in 2022 after studying raw data of more than 650 companies drawn from the Fortune 500 and S&P 500 companies. This is global data, which does not give the right data for home, considering only nine Indian entities made a list.

But why the scarcity? Comparing the two C-suite positions, one will find more female CEOs than female CFOs. While Indra Nooyi will always be regarded as the most notable CEO the country has seen, several have joined the list. Whereas, while Dhivya Suryadevara will be the most notable CFO at the global level, CFOs as a position is still by large considered a man's job.

In 2022, IFMR Graduate School of Business at Krea University and Dun & Bradstreet (D&B) 's study reported that no woman held the CFO position in Nifty 50 companies, with less than 5 per cent held by women in Nifty 250 companies.

So, are there less qualified women than men for the CFO titles? Dhwani Dattani begs to differ. The Group CFO of Suumaya Industries strongly believes that "women who are both analytical and compassionate, with a strong drive to create sustainable success, are highly qualified candidates for c-suite positions. In fact, I believe they can be even more effective than men with similar financial and leadership abilities."

Meeta Aggarwal joined the gourmet meat startup Licious in February 2022 as the Chief Financial Officer. She echoes Dattani's sentiments, "research suggests that as women advance through their careers, they steadily lose ground to their men counterparts at each progressive level, suggesting the pathway to the CFOs office is not as clearly carved out for women candidates as we imagine. This, however, does not imply that women have fewer qualifications or calibre. The reality is that there are other challenges that women face, before and after the CFO position, and leading many to either opt-out or wear them down."

Harvinder Kaur Sahni has been associated with Rajasthan Royals since the team's inception and has set up the finance team and systems for RR. Sahni believes the underrepresentation causes to be threefold: corporate preference, prioritising personal life and imposter syndrome. "Even today, there is a preference for male candidates in top roles v/s women candidates and business owners and decision-makers perceive that women are vulnerable in higher roles. Women, in many cases, deny top roles to prioritise their family or loved ones. Lack of women choosing to put themselves in the driving seat has led to the growth is slow and in many cases imposter syndrome in women takes over and they choose to work in No.2 positions v/s rising up to the leadership role," she adds. Sahni was promoted to Chief M&A and Compliance Officer of Rajasthan Royals in 2022 after serving as CFO since 2017.

Being a female in an executive managerial role is bound to have its set of challenges. Aggarwal recalls the biggest challenge being when she was blessed with her twin girls. "The fundamental assumption for women, and for me at that point, was to 'choose' (unlike for the men) between a successful career or a fulfilling personal life. I was determined to have both. A huge part of it was how not to feel guilt when I was unavailable for my children. It's imperative to realise that you can't do it all and that's okay - for both men and women," she shares. Needless to say, she wanted and got the best of both worlds. Sahni shares that whenever she faces an obstacle, she reminds herself that "when the going gets tough, the tough get going and keep looking for solutions."

So, any advice for young girls wanting to take up finance? Aggarwal firmly believes that one cannot put a timeline on overcoming gender disparity. Encouraging and improving the statistics has to be done by both the parties- individuals and industries.

"There needs to be a balance between how soon can women equip themselves better to get to top-tier roles and how organisations will enable it. For women's talent, the key is to have aspirations and technical expertise to lead at CFO levels and amplify it with behavioural enablers of self-belief, seek and speak without fear, and prioritise without guilt. At the organisation's end, it is first about recognising the gap, fostering an environment that enables women leaders, and developing the potential for early talent to build a leadership pipeline of women," she concludes.

Paromita Gupta

Features Writer

Covering news and trends in FinTech, AI, Metaverse, and Wealth segments. An avid book reader running her personal blog on the side.  

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