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Episode 17: Women In Finance: Smashing The Glass Ceiling at CFOs Office

Ilana Esterrich Ilana Esterrich

CFO

American Coatings Association

Madhurima Gupta Madhurima Gupta

Senior Product Marketing Manager

HighRadius

Available on

Synopsis:

In this episode, join Ilana Esterrich, Chief Financial Officer at American Coatings Association as she discusses how she broke the glass ceiling and made it all the way to the C-Suite and how women in finance can together bridge the gap.

Transcript:

Madhurima Gupta:

Hi! Welcome to the CFO Circle podcast powered by HighRadius. For decades finance has been considered the realm of men, even though women have always played an important role in this industry. While women from varying backgrounds have been making their headway and breaking into the conventionally male-dominated sector for quite a while, they remain underrepresented in leadership roles. In 2021, the proportion of women in leadership roles, within financial services firms was reported to be 24% and it is expected to grow to only 28% by 2030, which is much below parity. Which is why today I’m joined by a very special guest who has broken the glass ceiling and has made it all the way to the C-suite at the American Coating Association. And today we’ll talk about how women in finance and at finance organizations can work together to bridge this gap. Welcome to the show, Ilana, how are you doing?

Ilana Esterrich:

Doing well. Thank you.

Madhurima Gupta:

I am so excited to have you here today. And before we get started, we’d like to hear about what your background has been Ilana, and what has your journey to finance been like? Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Ilana Esterrich:

Great. Thank you. Well, my career has been non-linear. So coming to the top, most people assume that if you do things in steps, you know, 1, 2, 3, 4, that’s how you get to the top. I’m a good example of how your career can zig and zag and still, um, move in the direction that you wanted to go. I actually started my career in management consulting, working alongside accountants and systems folks, uh, working in practices specifically for the office of the CFO and in financial management and business analysis. So I spent my time in a variety of different industries with a variety of different clients implementing things such as large system implementations, like SAP doing business process reengineering or activity-based costing and management. Essentially, this was financial planning and analysis or FP&A in the early days before it became quite prominent.

And what we did was we worked with the finance organizations and a variety of clients to figure out how to do things better, more effectively, more efficiently, and, um, less costly. Those were the pre-FP&A days. I then spent about a third of my career in the industry working for a variety of companies like Thompson Reuters, and General Mills, where I worked directly in the finance organization under the CFO to not only put out the financial statements and all of the financial metrics but to work with the various departments in the organization to help them make data-driven decisions. So I worked with marketing, R&D, logistics, manufacturing, those kinds of things to figure out how to improve the performance of the organization. The last 10 years, I’ve been in the association space, in the not-for-profit space, in a CFO capacity where I not only manage the finance and accounting team from the controller down, but I also work with my business peers across departments to find how we can better provide for our members, and make data-driven decisions. I work with the board, I work with senior management and basically, my role now is looking at long-term initiatives and supporting the Association’s efforts on behalf of its members.

Madhurima Gupta:

Amazing. That’s great to hear that’s an enormous career to look back. Congratulations on that. So tell me, why do you think there are such few women in finance and I’ve quoted the numbers when we started off this interview already, but just to quote it back, you know, in financial firms, the leadership roles that are with women is only at 24%. So why do you think that there are such few women in finance and fewer in leadership roles?

Ilana Esterrich:

Well, I think the issue here is a matter of generations. And I will say, as a member of Gen X, um, I started my career in the days when women still wore bow ties and we had to wear suits. And you wore skirts, not pants. So I’m still part of that old guard. I think you will see this trend reversing as Gen Z and the millennial generation continues to evolve where the expectation is more of a gender-free and the expectation of parody is there. So I think that at some, you know, I’m 30 plus years into my career. And so I see fewer of my peers in senior leadership positions, and it’s still a result of just our generation of women entering the workforce and having to decide the mommy track. That was something that was kind of researched a lot in the 80s and 90s, and women kind of jumping off of the professional career track in order to stop and have families.

Because our generation was less about both the man and the woman, uh, equal in the household and in raising children that expectation isn’t there for the newer generations and the current generation that is now in their teenage years, the alpha generation, by the time they enter the workforce, the expectation of, uh, gender issues I think will be greatly alleviated. And you will start to see more parody in the senior levels. But unfortunately for those of us in my generation and the generation that preceded mind, the boomer generation, uh, it’s still been a very difficult, hard slog, but as you start to see, um, these older generations retire and move on and make room, you will start to see more parity coming through,

Madhurima Gupta:

Talking about parity, do you think that there is a pay gap when it comes to how much women earn in finance versus men?

Ilana Esterrich:

That is a hard question to answer. I think when you get to my level and you’re able to see the payroll and you’re able to see salary bands with ultimate transparency. You do see a little bit of disparity, but again, it stems from a generational issue. I think the great value right now is the internet age, where it is very easy to research what people are being paid, what the average salaries are. I, again, think that this will come to a head when gen Z and millennials start to move into the mid ranks, into the senior ranks, where they will demand what they are worth. I think those of us in the gen X, we are afraid to negotiate. Some of us are a little bit more hesitant to rock the boat. And so that, gender disparity in income and salaries is still prevalent.

But I think that as we, as women, as we become more informed, as we become more educated and we learn negotiation skills and we demand the respect, we demand that we are compensated for our worth. I think you’ll see that that gap narrow, but I do see,  I do see it. I have been in positions where I know what my predecessor was paid. And then, I get into the position I’m like that, that this doesn’t make sense. And you have to be willing to go to your management, go to your boss and say, this, this cannot stand. And I need to be paid what I’m worth. And I think when that conversation is had, I think people are a little surprised like, whoa, um, we made a mistake, we’re gonna correct that. So we need to be willing to stand up for ourselves and really demand that that gap disappear.

Madhurima Gupta:

Absolutely. You know, in fact, as per an article by Stephen Millers, CEBS on SHRM online, the article claims that the gender pay gap improvement slowed during the pandemic. So according to the same article, it is expected that the gender pay gap might even widen given the economic turmoil spurred COVID 19. So, you know, in your experience, how big has this pay gap been, and what is the right way to tackle it right? Like you said, that when you stepped into a role, you knew what your predecessors were making it, and they were fixing it, but this is something, or this is a discussion that at your level works. But then for people who are just growing, right, people at manager levels, senior manager levels, what should they do to make sure that they’re able to tackle and, you know, even figure out because you, you rightly say that today you can research how much a particular role is making online, but then it varies from industry to industry. How should one figure out what’s one worth in terms of, uh, you know, the pay, uh, that they should be getting?

Ilana Esterrich:

So with the pandemic, we did see a lot of people having to focus internally, whether it’s to care for elderly parents or to care for children, or to care for an ailing spouse. So unfortunately we still see women as being the caretakers, the primary caretakers. So it’s more likely that you will see women kind of step off of the career track in order to handle children, aging parents, um, whatever the situation is in the home life. It’s still, I think the prevailing wins, um, where the woman has most of the burden of the home life, as disappointing as that may be. So we did see a lot of women saying, I need to step down. However, we are seeing that that is impacting, employers’ abilities to keep their offices staffed and keep the wheels going.

And so what we may see is an adjustment on salary, but an increase in other benefits, in order to maintain that staffing. So we, what we’ve seen is, uh, we may have to do in order to keep people hired, given the increased supply chain issues, the increasing costs of life in the pandemic or post-pandemic, but we’re going to add work-life balance hybrid or fully remote, working or subsidies on childcare or other subsidies on elderly care. And so there may be some trade-offs that have to happen in order for companies to retain female workers, but even just workers in general. And so that’s part of what’s happening here, but again, in order to prevent that, we need to know our worth, we need to do the research. We need to talk to our peers. We need to have salary bands be very transparent and we need to be open and willing to create salary bands that are gender blind.

And I think that most companies that are being impacted by the great migration, the great reshuffle. However, you want to label it. And they realize if we are going to impact salaries, it has to be uniform. And we offset the decrease in salaries by finding other ways to provide for our employees because we are finding post-pandemic that we live, we work to live, not live to work. And so it’s not now about work-life balance, but about life work balance. And so I think there is an opportunity here to increase negotiation, to go back to our employers and restate what value we bring to the table and then negotiate for some people, the monetary, you know, what pays the bills is very important for others. It’s the secondary benefits that are most important, healthcare, dental, elder care, childcare, transportation benefits, the ability to work from home with subsidized equipment, and things like that. So we have to know what we wanna negotiate for, and if it’s not salary, what else is it? And then we have to also realize that as we move forward, it’s as likely to be, you know, female retention as it is just in general worker retention that we have to be focused on.

Madhurima Gupta:

There’s one key thing that I want to highlight here since we’ve talked about how women in finance should be negotiating their salaries, and be more aware and research. Well, I also wanna talk about how does a gender-diverse business benefit. There is a research by McKinsey & Company that outlines that having a gender-diverse business is likely to have 25% more financial returns. So is that something that you’ve seen? Do you agree?

Ilana Esterrich:

I think it adds to the variety of thought you’re the more diverse your workforce is. The more likely you’re going to have a variety of answers, solutions, opportunities to grow your business when your workforce reflects your consumer base or your membership base, or the, you know, the people who are being targeted by your product or your service, the more likely you are gonna have success in the market, because you’re gonna have the diversity of thought, you’re gonna have a diversity of ideas. You’re gonna have a nice balance of competencies between the folks that have ideas and creative side, versus those who are more on the execution side. So I think that the better the diversity on your teams, the better the success across the board. So I would agree with that McKinsey study very much so.

Madhurima Gupta:

So I guess that is one of the reasons why organizations should encourage women and enable them for accelerated growth in their hierarchy so they stay back and then, you know, this thought process that, you know, different, genders bring to the table, they stay there for the entire hierarchy. I mean, if we look at the gap in the availability of women at higher levels, then, in that case, all the decisions that are being taken at a higher level are actually driven by one track of thought.

Ilana Esterrich:

So I agree. And the other part is the building of the corporate culture, right? So in order for there to be a parody, in order for women to feel like they are being listened to, that they are being promoted and that their contributions are being valued. There’s a couple of things that organizations need to do. And I think one of the really key ones, and I see this a lot, is aggressively stamping out weaponized incompetence. And this is, um, well, if, you know, I don’t, know how to do this well, you know, and you wait for that aggressive female to come in and fix it. And we play a role, oftentimes whether it’s for the good, or for the bad where we come in and like roll up our sleeves. And like, I’m just gonna, I’m just gonna fix this. And a lot of women spend time doing things that others have left or are waiting for you to come in and fix. And you spend a lot of time doing project-based work, and then others take the credit for it. I think that organizations that will succeed with gender parity are the ones that are gonna build cultures that stamp out weaponized incompetence that make sure that things like mansplaining or restating a woman’s ideas in a different way and then taking credit for them, these little, that, um, they seem small, but over time they become very, very negative and they demoralize the women at the table. The more we stamp that out, the more men learn that we bring a lot of value to the table. We don’t need to be talked over. We don’t need to be restated. We don’t need to be mansplained. We don’t need to be relegated to housekeepers and, and do it, you know, uh, Doobies, you know, people who are gonna do the work, whereas everybody else is gonna take the credit. Those cultures that are able to stamp that out and foster the fact that a woman’s idea is fine exactly as she stated, and that she should be the one taking ownership of it, and everybody else should be lining up to do the work. Those organizations are gonna have an advantage over organizations that allow this negative culture or this culture where women are not given their due.

Madhurima Gupta:

I can’t agree more being a woman myself. You know, Ilana, there’s another thing that I wanna talk about. So there is a multiplied effect in financial services firm, wherein each woman added to a C suite, leads to three more women added to the seniorship, senior leadership roles. So in your experience, and, you know, by looking around what you’ve seen in your career journey so far, what difference does it make to have a woman serve in the C-suite role? And what does it mean for the other women who are growing up in the same organization? What does it do to have a role model?

Ilana Esterrich:

Well, I’m a little spoiled at the American Coatings Association. Women make up almost, almost more than half the workforce of the Association and for being in an industry or an association aimed at the chemicals industry, which is usually, and usually perceived as a more male-dominated, um, to have the association be almost 50% or more women is pretty interesting. And in fact, our management team, our senior management team of the eight people on the team, six are women, and of the eight people, three are people of color. So I’m a little bit spoiled here at the Association. I think it’s really positive that other women and even men see that women are in at the table, at the leadership table, um, that they, the expectation is I wanna seat at the table. And if there’s six of eight are women, then I have as much of a chance at the same time.

It should be clear to the men who are coming up, that this is not about leaving you out or excluding it’s about making sure that there’s a parody. I would give an example of something that I did in my prior position, where I worked for a think tank here in the Washington DC area. I was the chief financial and administrative officer, and one of my responsibilities was recruiting for the research staff. And one year we decided to do, we were complaining that we were just very male-based and we just, you know, I was one only one person on the management team and I was doing, you know, finance and administration and kind of the housekeeping side of this organization. So one year we actually removed the names and any gender bias off of the resumes and off of the application package.

And I gave every candidate a number and we ranked the candidates by number and the top three candidates were female. And we made three offers to three women. And that was the beginning of adding more women to the research staff, added to this very male-dominated thing tank. So when that starts happening and then all of a sudden, oh I could have opportunities at this think tank that I wasn’t really thinking about because they all, you know, when I go to the website, it’s all men and now they’re starting to see women. And so this gives the incentive to apply to open positions. So when you start to see women in the leadership, if you go to the website and see leadership team, management team, the board of directors, and you start to see women, it takes the fear of applying. And I think that we still, as women feel a little hesitant, or maybe,  insecure about applying for certain jobs because, oh, I don’t know if I could, if I could fit in there. I don’t know if I could do the job. You absolutely can, and you absolutely will fit in, you have to take that leap. So as we start to see more and more women in senior management positions, it gives women the confidence to start applying, and you’ll start to see the aperture of qualified candidates widen. And we will start to see more women in areas that were traditionally male-dominated, not because it’s a male-dominated industry, but simply because nobody wanted to take the chance and risk failure. So I agree with that multiplier effect. And it has to do with the optics of seeing people who look like you. We see this in the movie industry where we’re seeing many ethnicities that we wouldn’t have normally seen in movies have leading roles. And what that says is, Hey, I see my superhero and I see people who look like me. And so we see it on in the movie industry, uh, and we see the diversity of movies that are coming out in the last year or two. And we will start to see the same thing in business when we start to see online and at meetings and in situations like this, people who look like me, whether it’s male, female, ethnicities, color skin, those kinds of things, we will see more diversity.

Madhurima Gupta:

So, tell me this, in the last two decades, what steps have you taken across, or maybe you’ve seen your leaders take at different points that have helped to bridge this gap to some extent, and what do you think can be done better?

Ilana Esterrich:

Looking at gender blind was one thing, um, really hiring for capabilities and skills versus the school or the major or the path, um, understanding that folks with a diversity of path having different work experiences, having different perspectives, valuing that difference is going to be very important. I also think that getting to quality and parity depends on training it, um, it depends on providing flexibility not just for women, but for all staff members. So whether it’s work from home versus hybrid versus, you know, all in office, it’s looking at what our marketplace looks like. So we’re looking and seeing younger couples or, um, the changing in our consumer base. We need to reflect that in senior management. I think, again, this goes back to generations. I have two children.

I have a 19-year-old and a 15-year-old, a 19-year-old girl and a 15-year-old boy. And as a Gen Xer, who had to kind of fight her way through and really rise based on my own skillset, I wanted to make sure that my children have the skills to be independent adults regardless of gender. So my daughter knows how to change a car tire and how to maintain the yard. My son knows how to wash dishes and do laundry, and vice versa, right? So I have trained my children. I raised my children so that they’re equally capable of being independent, self-sustaining adults so that when they meet their future mates and girlfriend, boyfriend, roommates, housemates, whatever you wanna, they’re going to look for people who are going to value that.  And so that’s why I think that in, you know, when the alpha generation with their teenagers right now when they become adults, they will look back at the boomers and gen Xers and think that’s crazy. I can’t even imagine a world where it was expected that a woman would be making the coffee or cleaning up after a meeting, or would be the one who has to race back to attend a child’s concert. They will look at it as  I couldn’t believe that I wouldn’t be expected to have the same standards or be held to the same standards as a woman or as a man. So I think that the gender imbalances will be another generation away from being more parody. But it will take the boomers and the Gen Xers kind of moving, progressing through the ranks, and creating opportunities for those subsequent generations.

Madhurima Gupta:

Thank you, Ilana. I think all of your insights have been really interesting and I’m sure that our listeners are going to, you know, leverage a lot from it, especially, you know, being aware of what they should be paid for, internet researching across all industries at all levels, you know, um, maybe going and asking their managers that, Hey,  what do you think can I do better? And what do you think can I do to make sure that Hey my salary receives the right up hike? So I think those things would be really helpful. And since we are coming to the end of this episode, I would want you to also share your parting thoughts or tips, for all the women in finance, students wanting to have a career in finance and, you know, hoping to be in a C-suite level at some point. So what would that, um, you know, one, tip two tip any number of tips that you’d like to give,

Ilana Esterrich:

Right. I think the number one thing is always be learning. So the number one thing is what you bring to the table. So in order for you to maintain parody or exceed parody, you should always be learning. So if you wanna move into high finance or corporate finance, operational finance, strategic finance, whatever kind of finance, it is, learn as much as you can about it, find out what your local chapter of the CFO leadership council is and join it. Find your controllers, council, your state, or local CPA organization, and professional networking, whether it’s the women’s networking group or anything of professional interest. LinkedIn is a great resource. Start following the companies that are interesting to you thought start following leaders who are of interest to you. Always be reading. A lot of this FinTech, HighRadius is one. A lot of these FinTech organizations provide a lot of free research and free publications. Download them, read them, learn, ask questions, go to the conferences, go to the seminars, meet your peers, and start networking. I know that networking kind of has a negative connotation. It feels a little bit funny to be schmoozing or sucking up, but it really isn’t. It is about building connections. It’s about building your personal brand. So when people hear the name, Ilana Esterrich or Madhurima Gupta, they know, I know where she’s coming from. I know what she’s capable of. I know what she can talk about. And then people start knocking on your door. Hey, I heard you say something at a meeting and I wanna follow up on it. Hey, you made a good comment on a virtual meeting, and I would like to hear more and so always be learning, get out of your comfort level, meet people and acquire those skills that are needed. So if in your organization, there is a blank spot or a blank area, find out how you can fill it and add value back to your organization in that area where they had a blank space. So always be learning, always be adding value, and know your worth.

Madhurima Gupta:

Thank you so much for your time today for this podcast. And I am so thrilled about a lot of young leaders that will we’ll have at some point in time in the future. They’re gonna learn a bunch from this episode, and I’d like to thank you once again for taking the time. And for our listeners out there, stay tuned. We’ll be back.

 

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