Women in finance are still underrepresented at every level. In the UK, women comprise 40% of the finance workforce, but although 52% of finance’s entry-level workforce are women, “their representation falls off at every step”. In 2015, the UK government launched the HM Treasury Women in Finance Charter with the aim of encouraging the financial services industry “to improve gender balance in senior management.” Despite steady progress in that time, the June 2022 review of the Charter’s progress found the average level of female representation in senior management was 33% in 2021.
Why does this matter? A 2019 study by S&P found that “firms with female CFOs are more profitable and generated excess profits of $1.8T. Female CEOs saw a 20% increase in stock price momentum and female CFOs saw a 6% increase in profitability and 8% larger stock returns.”
Finance Project Manager Alpa Thakrar has seen the evolution of women’s role in ERP and finance throughout her portfolio career. When Alpa started in finance tech, roles were predominantly filled by men; but “it is evolving,” she says.
While the representation of women in Finance is steadily increasing, in addition, “more and more women are being encouraged into the tech space by the likes of Vanessa Vallely who hosts We are the City. Black and Asian women are being inspired by the likes of Coding Black Females and entrepreneurs like Rupa Popat, who are investing in start ups that are led by women in the tech space.”
“I quickly realised that being a straightforward financial accountant really wasn’t for me,” says Alpa, who carved a niche for herself as an expert in finance systems, systems implementation, and financial transformation — one of the cornerstones of which is Enterprise Resource Planning, or ERP, software.
ERP digitises manual processes such as invoicing, processing returns or sales reports, allowing organisations to have a live view of performance. The implementation of ERP is a transformation project, and one of the key skills in any transformation project is a problem-solving mindset. This way of working is often referred to as ‘soft skills’, or core skills.
The hard value of soft skills
One of Alpa’s first jobs was in transformation, and she witnessed how powerful a finance role can be when there’s a problem to resolve. But while ERP may be a software platform, its implementation requires an organisation-wide shift in culture and practice. Communication, relationship management, and project management are therefore part of an essential ‘soft’ skillset for robust careers in finance. It’s often women who bring these skills to work.
“I’m hands-on, I’ll get my hands dirty,” says Alpa, who harnesses soft skills to develop her team’s understanding of their role in driving overall performance. “Everyone understanding their numbers means that people are on top of their costs; they understand why something’s going really well because they’re able to look at trends, they understand the history and the pricing. If people understand their data and their numbers, then they’re at least 50% of the way to achieving their target.”
Even though skills such as emotional intelligence directly improve the bottom line, they can be hard to measure. Failing to measure their value is contributing to women’s attrition in the finance sector. HR teams should include soft skills in job ads, and learn new ways of measuring performance value.
The importance of mentoring for gender inclusivity
Alpa’s early career growth was helped by “mentors from different areas of the business.” Working across teams allowed Alpa to build stronger relationships by giving her the space to ask seemingly simple questions that could surface gaps and build cross-team relationships.
Mentoring works: 71% of Fortune 500 companies now offer it. With women disproportionately suffering the fallout from covid-19 related redundancies, mentoring can help them recover from the burdens of COVID-19-related career struggles.
Researchers writing for HBR note that women and people of colour particularly benefit from mentoring — and it’s neither expensive nor complicated to manage. Recruitment strategies that list mentoring are more effective at attracting the right candidates.
For women hoping to forge a career in financial systems, make sure to read our guide to Certifications and courses for careers in ERP, EPM and finance transformation.
Changing job adds to increase women’s career progression
With female talent attritioning up the finance pipeline, recruiters can play an important role in increasing diversity. Harvard researchers found that “job ads using more masculine wording led women to have a lower sense that they would belong in the position or company.” Recruiters can use simple online tools to make ads gender neutral and inclusive.
Recruiters can also stop using ‘years of experience’ as a screening tool. This arbitrary metric can act as a barrier to women’s progression. Why? With women more likely to take breaks for maternity leave, caring for children and/or parents than men, this traditional but unreliable metric harms women.
Not only that, researchers from the University of Florida found that it’s a poor predictor of future performance. Recruiters can simply remove this unhelpful stipulation from job descriptions, and replace it with wording such as ‘substantial’ or ‘managerial level’.
Flexible work patterns help women evolve their finance careers
Shared parental leave is allowing families to create their own patterns, and Alpa has witnessed first-hand how this is helping women professionally: “I’ve got someone in my team who took only three months of maternity leave and then her husband took the remainder.”
Alpa’s also witnessed the benefits of flexible working culture and the benefits of legislation around holidays: 20 years ago, she says, “If you wanted time off to go to something at your child’s school, you would have had to take it as a holiday. Now, having that few hours extra on Friday afternoon because you want to go to your child’s sports day is no longer an issue.”
It’s about trust and respect: “I will deliver what I need to deliver. There’s a mutual respect that, as women, we will flex our day.”
Women also need to manage menopausal symptoms while at work. The employment rate of people aged 50-64 has increased by 12 percentage points since 2000; women typically experience the menopause between 45 & 55. Alpa’s employer, Wickes, offers a service via Peppy Health that supports their employees to understand the symptoms of Menopause and the options that are available to them. Proactive help that recognises gender differences allows women to bring their significant experience to work, and add value across the board.
Using technology to keep women skilled during career breaks
Hybrid working has also given us better ideas for tools that can allow low-cost, high-impact communication tactics. Employers can share quick videos about developments and training, enabling women to retain their knowledge across technical information such as ERP software, legislation and internal systems. “If you’re off for a year or you don’t have a lot of time, then short videos or similar digital resources can help,” says Alpa.
Make sure that hybrid working doesn’t negatively impact women’s career progression
The Office for National Statistics reports that people who work from home are 50% less likely to get promoted than those present in the office; when the same people return to being in the office full time, their promotion prospects return to the same as full-time office workers. With women being 52% more likely to request flex working and presenteeism in finance a problem, and men in finance 21% more likely to be offered a promotion than women, strategic support is needed to support women in finance.
With technical knowledge, valuable experience, and integral ‘soft’ skills, women like Alpa Thakrar will increasingly earn positions of authority at the intersection of finance and technology — particularly as the culture of work continues to evolve.
Finance and ERP firms are making strides, but they still have a long way to go. But the outlook is exciting, because, says Alpa, “organisations realise that having the experience and knowledge back on the team is beneficial.”
Women In Finance Systems Event
The Women in Finance Systems event will be hosted at our Liverpool Street-based WeWork offices at 6pm on Thursday 29th September – it is an opportunity for SA to bring together women from the Finance Systems community so that they can network and share their experiences, market trends, and how they have found being a women in a typically male-dominated industry. It is also a chance to discuss how we can continue to support women and contribute towards achieving gender equality in our field.