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International Women’s Day 2023: Women in Finance Leadership

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Over the past few weeks, I have had the pleasure of speaking with numerous female leaders in my senior Finance network about their journey to the top and the challenges they’ve faced along the way. On International Women’s Day (IWD), I am honoured to share their advice with anyone who needs to be inspired and to advise for potential obstacles you may face throughout your career.

This year’s theme for IWD is #EmbraceEquity. There is an apparent gender disparity within the Finance function, as Women are significantly under-represented in leadership roles. This made me question how many female role models there are for Finance professionals to look towards for inspiration.

Interestingly, most of the talented women I spoke with “fell” into Finance. Many of them went to university to study Law, Economics, or Politics, with some starting their careers through AAT (Association of Accounting Technicians). Few went to university to initially study Accountancy and Finance, yet they are highly successful Finance Directors or Heads of Finance in Globally recognised brands. This perfectly demonstrates that no matter your background, there is always an opportunity for a successful career in Finance.

Yet, there is still a discrepancy at the top of the Finance function. To create a truly diverse, equitable, and inclusive workforce, we must have transparent conversations regarding the insufficient commitment to diversity and the apparent absence of role models for aspiring female leaders.

Working life as a parent

Working full-time and juggling having a family, career progression, and studying to become qualified may feel like the world’s largest mountain to climb. One interviewee said, “negotiating a budget with a difficult stakeholder is as challenging as negotiating with my toddler to get dressed in the morning!” For each woman I spoke to, the key marker for managing stresses was to find comparable aspects in their personal and professional lives and identify where to set subsequent boundaries.

Through these conversations, I identified that having the ability to set clear boundaries in the early stages of their careers proved challenging. Being heavily pregnant, working endless hours, and travelling nationwide inevitably led to feeling overworked and stressed. However, they referenced that their employers enabled these behaviours, and overworking was seen as a way to prove their worth and dedication to the business.

For many women in their mid-20s to 30s, there is an implicit understanding that at some point, you may choose to start a family – why should your career be disadvantaged as a result? You’re most likely thinking “surely that can’t be true; it’s 2023, and most professionals work on a hybrid basis now.” Whilst that may be the case today, it wasn’t true before the pandemic and is a recurring theme for their career journeys.

Post-pandemic, the stigma around flexible working has eased, and the ability to be a working parent has become significantly easier. Most employers focus on supporting their employees and encouraging work/life balance. As an employee, the ownership equally lies in intrinsically understanding what works for you to optimise balance and productivity in your career.

Leaders must empower all parents (not just mothers) and demonstrate that their careers will not be disadvantaged because they are a parent; it needs to span beyond performative policies, with work/life balance genuinely embedded into organisational culture. Empowering your team to know that flexible working translates to autonomy and the ability to work in a way that suits your lifestyle will ultimately create a more dedicated, hard-working, and successful team.

Mental wellbeing

Imposter syndrome is a prevalent issue that many individuals face at some point throughout their careers. What quantifies me to write this article or speak with these successful women?

“Every successful person failed…and then failed again”. Success is a by-product of learning from our faults. Being afraid to fail is human nature; what defines us is our resilience, how we respond to failures, and the continuous drive to learn and overcome challenges as they arise. It’s essential to realise imposter syndrome is internal and commonplace – “you may lack in confidence, but everything is a journey.” We need to shift our mindset to realise we are where we are for a reason.

Equally, you don’t always have to have all the answers. Listen to the voices around you that inspire you, learn from people with perspectives different from your own, and be open to changing your opinion.

Goal setting

If you go through life with the unwavering belief that you know exactly where you will be in 5 years, you will likely let yourself down; always expect the unexpected and relish in the excitement of where your career can take you. A career in Finance is not as grey as some may think; seeing the rainbow of opportunity which lies ahead will ignite your career forward.

An effective goal setting method is to speak with your line manager and outline realistic goals and key performance indicators to manage your time effectively, whether your goal is to complete your qualification or learn a new avenue in Finance. Gain the confidence to ask for constructive feedback and create an action plan based on your improvement points.

Always remember that it’s okay to ask for help. Demonstrate your ambition and desire to learn; chances are you will be surprised by the doors opening before you. However, as exciting as this sounds, remember that when you’re not getting support from your leadership team, don’t overly index on their opinion. It’s essential to recognise when it is time to walk away.

What qualities are important for potential hires?

I asked each of the Senior Finance Leaders I spoke with to explain what qualities they look for when hiring into their teams. In addition to concrete skill requirements, which are unchanging, these female leaders equally value other attributes and soft skills.

Every person I spoke to highlighted that they look for ambition – not necessarily in the way you would expect. It’s great if you have a goal to be a Finance Director within a set number of years, but what they are looking for in potential hires is more significant. They want to see your internal ambition; your desire to be the best version of yourself, grow and develop in a role, understand complexities, and challenge yourself. Hiring teams are looking for someone who can solve problems, is inquisitive, and demonstrates great enthusiasm for learning.

It’s equally important to be someone who demonstrates a team-player attitude and can build relationships because, as we know, Finance is a support function – not a back-office role.

To summarise

You will undoubtedly face challenges at every stage of your career. What is important is how you overcome these hurdles. Ask yourself, “how can I learn from this?”

To progress within a business, effective communication is vital. Outline an achievable success plan with your manager and ensure you track your achievements and where you have added value. Be bold, try something new, and always remember that Finance is not about working in isolation; it’s about working as a network.