Women enter the finance and accounting profession in almost equal numbers to men. Yet they remain vastly underrepresented at the highest levels of the profession. According to The 2021 Women’s FTSE Board Reportproduced by the Cranfield School of Management, there are only 15 female CFOs or chief financial officers at FTSE 100 companies.
The lack of women at the highest levels of the profession is a problem that Margherita Della Valle, chief financial officer of the Vodafone group, is determined to respond. She’s so determined, in fact, that she’s started an initiative called NXT GEN Women in Finance, with other European CFOs. This group of CFOs began to identify, mentor and promote rising female stars in finance. The goal is to help them rise to the top of their profession while supporting other women in their progress.
In this Q&A session, Della Valle discusses the barriers currently preventing women in finance from reaching their potential and how mentoring can help them.
Sally Percy: What obstacles prevent women today from reaching the top of the financial profession?
Marguerite Della Valle: I think there are the same kinds of obstacles and challenges in finance as in other functions within an organization. A fundamental obstacle is what people call “subconscious bias.” The definition of leadership and the leadership attributes that people seek are still largely dominated by men. This colors daily interactions and promotions, as well as the engagement of women as they push their careers. Sometimes you see women disconnecting from the game, because it’s not the game they want to play.
Percy: How can we help more women in finance succeed?
Della Valle: The solution to this problem will be more women in leadership roles and diversity at all levels. It’s the real game-changer we all need to push for. For example, a few years ago I attended a training session on how women should behave in interviews if they want to be successful. In my opinion, it is not women who have to change to succeed in interviews. It is the interviewers who must change and the nature of the interviews must be different. Much of the advice women receive in terms of selling their skills and appearing confident might be different if the interviewers themselves were women. I personally believe that I interview men differently.
Percy: How would organizations benefit from having more women in finance leadership positions?
Della Valle: The case has been repeatedly made for diversity. When you have diversity of thought around the table, you end up making better decisions for customers and for the business. Of course, this doesn’t just apply to gender diversity either. One of the reasons I like working for Vodafone is the cultural diversity we have. Perhaps one of the reasons companies with greater diversity perform better is because people are more open in how they seek out talent. These companies have access to a wider range of talent and therefore a richer employee base.
Percy: Do you think investors are more likely to trust a female CFO than a male CFO?
Della Valle: I don’t think trust is an issue, but we definitely need more female investors. The worlds of banking and investing are still predominantly male. I think diversity is important in every environment.
Percy: Why did you decide to launch NXT GEN Women in Finance with other CFOs?
Della Valle: I wanted to see more women become our successors in CFO positions across Europe. So I networked with some of the few women who were already CFOs in major European indices – the FTSE 100 in the UK, the CAC 40 in France and the DAX in Germany. We scoured Europe for great female talent already present in finance, but at different levels within organisations. After identifying these top talents, we selected the first group of eight women who represent “next generation finance leadership potential” and will coach them individually over the next 12 months.
Percy: What do you hope NXT GEN Women in Finance will achieve through the mentorship program?
Della Valle: The idea is to create a network of support and sponsorship. We want to give women mentees as much exposure as possible because we want to see younger women at the very beginning of their careers understanding what is possible. What is important is that we do it ourselves – women for women. There are no sponsors involved, no external support, no headhunters. We are just a group of female CFOs who want to support the next generation growing in the role.
Percy: What advice would you give to other CFOs to develop female talent within their finance teams?
Della Valle: Start very, very early. Be sure to work with upward graduates. Also focus on unconscious bias and ensure a diverse panel participates in career and promotion discussions to seek a balance of leadership qualities.