The debate about why women steadily lose ground to their male colleagues in the workplace almost always reveals a variety of complex challenges. For one, the dearth of female leaders means that most women professionals don't have role models to whom they can relate, said Caroline Whaley, co-founder of Shine for Women LLP, a UK-based consultancy that works with companies to achieve greater gender balance at the top.
"When women in corporates look up to the top, they don't see people they can relate to — they either see men or they see a superwoman whose work rate seems unattainable," Whaley said. "This makes women really question whether they have the qualities and skills, or even desire, to reach that level and whether they can even begin to take those next steps."
Additionally, some attribute the persisting trend to a confidence gap, with female professionals often finding it far more difficult to ask for, and take on, stretch assignments — projects or tasks that go beyond their current skill levels and offer responsibilities that prepare them for higher-level finance positions.
We spoke to women in leadership positions to find out how female finance professionals can learn to ask for a stretch assignment and overcome both internal and external barriers to growth.
Volunteer for nonfinance projects/initiatives
By putting your hand up for smaller projects, you can immediately begin to acquire new skills and connections that you otherwise would not have been exposed to.
Funmi Adesida, FCMA, CGMA, the COO at EFInA, a financial sector development organisation that promotes financial inclusion in Nigeria, said that female professionals should start by volunteering to lead on projects that may sit outside their normal roles and responsibilities.
"For instance, last year I took on the planning responsibilities for an important company event, and I had to work closely with the board and executive team to develop the agenda, clarify topics, liaise with delegates, etc.; and this allowed me to gain new project management skills while also further developing my existing network," she said. "To me, there is no learning that is lost, and it can be these types of projects that really build up your confidence and give you the skills to propel you into the next phase of your growth."
Recruit workplace allies with intent
"Women in finance must begin to work out who they need around them to succeed and then actively build relationships with those people," Whaley said. "When going for the stretch, it is critical to have the right people to support and challenge you on this journey."
She noted that many women are strategic and deliberate about recruiting powerful allies in their personal lives, but they may not apply the same intentional action in their work environment.
"Too often, women approach work and business as if it is a meritocracy, which it simply isn't," Whaley said. "You cannot leave your personal development to chance, in the hopes that someone will whisk you along. ... That's a huge risk. Instead, you have to actively identify and recruit allies at work who will support you and give you the confidence to go for the stretch."
Make every department your business
"Many finance professionals tend to stay isolated within their role and have very little interaction with other parts of the business," Adesida said. "Yet to ask for stretch assignments and succeed, you really need to understand the organisation — and its people — more deeply."
For example, by spending time with the marketing team, you can gain insight into the consumer and competitor trends that are shaping sales and pricing strategies. Similarly, understanding more about the manufacturing processes behind the product can enrich your understanding of the numbers that you work with on a day-to-day level.
"By asking questions about the business and moving out of your normal perspective, you can go into meetings with more confidence and have really detailed, constructive conversations," she added. "Not only will your colleagues and supervisors realise that you're deeply informed, but you will also be able to bring a more insightful approach to problem-solving. This kind of insight and active participation gives you the knowledge and confidence to take on stretch assignments."
Create pathways to align interests with work
"Many female finance professionals find themselves stuck in a particular department with a too narrow scope, and sometimes the only way to expand this scope is to actively create a new pathway for yourself," said Rachel Wehr, CPA, president of Lone Wolf Solutions PC, a full service solo CPA firm in the US that works with small business owners. "The best way to do this is to find something that really interests you on a more personal level and find out how pursuing this interest can possibly benefit your company or colleagues."
For example, a management accountant might tackle anti-money-laundering controls if she has a passion for more investigative work and an interest in the intersections between finance and law.
"By pursuing a genuine interest and seeing how it can complement or ultimately replace your existing role, you will naturally begin to acquire new skills and develop different parts of yourself at work," she said. "Just because something isn't being offered directly doesn't mean that there isn't an opportunity to proactively explore a strong interest or passion in your current position."
Isolate the inner critic
According to Whaley, one of the biggest obstacles that women face in learning to ask for the stretch assignment is the invisible yet persistent voice of the inner critic. This most dangerous of critics continuously reiterates feelings of doubt and inhibits the ability to act boldly and without fear. One way to tackle that fear is to write it down.
"When considering a stretch assignment, I have learned to articulate and write down exactly what I am scared of: what my perceived weaknesses are and the reasons why I feel I can't take it on," said Brittany Cummings, CPA, a director with BKD LLP, a US-based CPA and advisory firm. "Once I see it all visually, it becomes easier to debunk these fears."
When doing this exercise, divide your notepaper into two columns. In the first column, list your fear or perceived limitation. In the second column, write down the possible solutions or resources that can tackle this problem. For example, if you feel that you don't have enough capacity or time for the project, list ways in which you can possibly free up some time by moving away from other responsibilities.
"It's also really valuable to write down the outcome if you achieve the assignment, and the 'What's next?', as this can keep you motivated and hungry for the next challenge," Cummings added.
"Men have these inner critics too, of course, but women tend to listen to this voice far more often, making a habit of it, and hence suffer from the imposter syndrome that it breeds," Whaley said. "The way to confront this critic is to learn to identify that voice when it is there and to understand the impact that it has. Once you have learned how to identify it, and isolate that voice, you can start to take back control of your own narrative."
Take the leap
"Once you've gone for the stretch the first time, it becomes easier to confront your fears the next time and step outside your comfort zone," Cummings said. "As a Black woman in the industry, I used to think that if I failed, every Black woman behind me would have an uphill battle. But I came to understand that this is just not the case. ... I'm human, I'm normal, and my colleagues and board know when I'm being stretched."
One of the most important aspects of going for a challenging assignment, she added, is to be transparent about where you need additional help and resources. Communicate regularly with managers, colleagues, and mentors about what you need, and ask for it fearlessly, without worrying about how it looks to others.
"Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, it's a sign of confidence and clarity — and asking questions can be integral to achieving your goals."
AICPA & CIMA Women’s Global Leadership Summit
Conference: Come and join hundreds of accounting and finance professionals who are committed to creating an inclusive and equal profession, just like you.
"Keeping Microaggressions Out of Your Workplace", CPA Insider, 11 January 2021
"Pandemic Can Be a Catalyst for Greater Gender Equality", FM magazine, 24 August 2020
The AICPA Women's Initiatives Executive Committee, a dedicated group of volunteers whose mission is to promote and support the success of women to advance the profession together. Visit aicpa.org.
The Women in Leadership Forum, a network of CIMA members dedicated to supporting women in finance and accounting and helping them build their dream career. Visit cimaglobal.com.
Jessica Hubbard is a freelance writer based in the UK. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.