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May 25, 2017

Glassbreakers: Getting more women to the top in IR

According to research from IR Magazine, the near-even male-to-female split across IR as a whole is not reflected in the number of women making it into the top jobs

At a glance

The numbers
Despite starting from a base of almost 50:50 male to female across investor relations as a whole, IR Magazine research shows that two thirds of top IR jobs globally are held by men. And no matter how you cut the numbers – by region or cap size – men always come out on top.

Identikit management
The problem isn’t attracting women to the roles, say Pavita Cooper, steering member at the 30% Club and Sue Scholes, board director at the UK’s IR Society. The problem is that when it comes to finding the next senior managers, those already at the top often look for people similar to themselves.

Working on diversity
With a concerted effort, however, firms like Cisco and Diageo are helping to change this – and diversity fosters more diversity. ‘More women can make it – and are making it – to these top IR roles and in so doing they’ll continue to inspire others to choose this career path,’ says Diageo’s head of IR Sharon Rolston.


Globally, two thirds of the top jobs in investor relations are held by men. At FTSE 100 companies, 70 percent of heads of IR are male; among the top 100 firms in the S&P 500, almost four fifths of senior IR positions are occupied by men. In Canada, 70 percent of IR chiefs at S&P/TSX 60 firms are men. And on Germany’s DAX, men run the IR departments at 26 of the country’s 30 largest companies.*

Percentage of female heads of IR across FTSE 100, S&P 100, TSX 60 and DAX

No matter how you split the numbers – globally, regionally or by market cap size – the findings are the same. Despite starting from an almost equal number of men and women working in investor relations overall, the IR Magazine Global IR Practice Report 2016 (published in January 2017) shows that disproportionately more men make it into the top jobs.

These figures might make stark reading for IROs working in what, at first glance around an IR conference, appears to be an industry where the jobs are shared out almost equally. But for those with an active interest, the numbers come as no surprise. In fact, ‘It didn’t surprise me but it does continue to disappoint me’ is the prevailing response.

The drop-off point

This ‘dropping off’ of women as seniority increases is something Pavita Cooper, founder and director of career insight firm More Difference and steering committee member at the 30% Club, says is common across many professions – even those she terms ‘pink’ functions like HR or communications, which tend to attract more women. ‘Often you’ll see a huge prevalence of women but when you look at the very top jobs, they’re filled by men,’ she says.

Even in general financial services – hardly famed for gender equality – the issue isn’t about attracting sufficient women. ‘It’s not an issue about how you get young women into organizations at the entry level. There are plenty of women,’ observes Cooper. ‘But what you see is a gradual drop-off as women progress through the levels.’

Of course, there are many reasons behind this, and it’s an issue that Sue Scholes, board director and former chair of the UK’s IR Society, says she ‘could talk about all day’. But some of the key factors include a lack of female role models in senior positions, certain corporate cultures and the prejudices – both subconscious and realized – of those already in senior roles and those recruiting to fill heads of investor relations positions. What it isn’t about, though, is ‘women going off to have children’.

‘Women often get blamed for leaving,’ notes Cooper. ‘There are assumptions made by men – and women – that women aren’t ambitious enough, they aren’t confident enough, they have kids. And all of that is absolute rubbish. Women often leave simply because they don’t feel included, because the organization doesn’t feel like the kind of place where they can make it to the top.’

And often that assumption is correct. If you look at the way in which men and women are assessed at entry level, Cooper says it’s pretty equal. But as you climb the corporate ladder, you begin to see ‘mirror-image recruitment’ creeping in. Those at the top are often looking for ‘people who have had a similar career track to them, who have had similar sets of experiences,’ Cooper adds. ‘People who behave in a similar way or have a similar demeanor to the people who are already at the top.’ And the majority of the time, those people already at the top are men.

Add to that the fact that IR is a travel-intensive profession that essentially requires a successful IRO to become a jack-of-all-trades and the perception that a woman might not succeed in the top job only increases. Doing research for the IR Society’s upcoming Diploma in IR – a higher-level qualification than the existing Certificate in IR – Scholes explains that they looked at what recruiters felt was needed to make it to the top.

‘Technical skills are only one part of what gets you into senior management,’ she says. ‘It’s also about gravitas.’ The problem is how people might define that. ‘Are they defining a person with gravitas as somebody who is male, white, probably in his 40s with a touch of gray hair? Sometimes the way women present themselves – as themselves – is not the identikit solution of what a senior manager might look like and therefore they are seen as a risk.’

Scholes also points out that, of course, the issue of diversity isn’t as simple as male and female. For example, she notes that investor relations is ‘a very white group’. Whichever angle you look at the diversity issue from, however, adding a mix to senior positions helps to break that mold: once you’ve had someone in the position who isn’t a white man of a certain age, it becomes easier to do it again.

Spirited women

The box-ticking approach doesn’t cut it here. ‘All the research shows that women need to feel like they’re more than a tiny minority,’ explains Cooper. Which is why ‘just sticking one woman on an executive committee’ doesn’t work – it doesn’t normalize it. ‘The women underneath look up and think, But she’s superwoman, I can’t do that. I don’t want that life. You’ve got to have three, four, five or six – or 50 percent of women at the top.’

And that’s what companies like Diageo and Cisco are doing. Marilyn Mora, head of global IR at tech giant Cisco, says the firm has a focus on equality and diversity across several functions – not just in the boardroom. ‘Cisco has long been a supporter of diversity across gender, ethnicity, orientation, background and culture,’ she says. ‘It is fundamental to how we run our company.’

As such, she says, around 36 percent of the company’s leadership team is now female and a third of its board is made up of women – something that ‘has been driven by a concerted effort from our CEO, Chuck Robbins, who is a big champion of women in leadership roles.’ And interestingly, Mora was in fact surprised by IR Magazine’s research findings, noting that ‘across my peers in the technology landscape, I see a more balanced representation.’

It’s true that Mora, now entering her 10th year as head of IR at the San José-headquartered company, is just the latest in a line of women in IR to have flourished at Cisco. Blair Christie rose from head of investor relations and corporate communications to the C-suite as CMO, only to be succeeded by another woman, Karen Walker. The firm also boasts a woman in the CFO role, in the form of Kelly Kramer who joined the firm in 2012 after 20 years at GE, where she held a number of senior finance positions.

A similar situation can be seen at Diageo, where the women who make up almost 40 percent of the executive committee represent a wide range of functions that include the CFO, general counsel, the CMO and the president of the company’s North America business. ‘These women inspire me and all the other women (and men!) within Diageo to be bold in our career choices and push ourselves forward,’ says Sharon Rolston, head of IR at the global drinks giant responsible for Smirnoff vodka and Captain Morgan rum.

With more than 20 years’ finance experience, Rolston had become used to working in a male-dominated environment but notes that things are changing. At Diageo – a company that is not only a member of the 30% Club but also one of only 16 FTSE 100 members (as of October 2016) to have met or exceeded the goal of 30 percent female board representation – Rolston sits in the finance leadership group as well as leading the IR team. ‘The strong level of female representation among this group is a great signal to our female talent in the function and across the business,’ she says.

When it comes to these functions, Rolston also notes that – like Cisco – Diageo has been an exception to a common rule, with different women holding senior finance and IR roles for a number of years: Kathryn Mikells took over from Deirdre Mahlan as CFO in 2015, when Mahlan moved to revive the company’s North American business, while Rolston herself succeeds Catherine James, who headed up the IR department for 18 years before stepping down in 2016. ‘More women can make it – and are making it – to these top IR and finance roles, and in doing so they’ll continue to inspire others to choose this career path,’ says Rolston.

But these achievements aren’t just something that happened because Cisco and Diageo are nice places to work for women. At Cisco, the company has a clear focus on encouraging diversity: the firm signed the Equal Pay Pledge last year, and at this year’s annual Connected Women Executive Roundtable it launched the Multiplier Effect Pledge, which Mora says is to ‘encourage tech leaders to sponsor a diverse individual to enable his or her development to the next level in his/her career.’

The pledge itself was initiated by Yvette Kanouff, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco’s service provider business and a member of the leadership team. The firm has other initiatives in place, including Cisco Glassbreakers, Cisco Jump and DARE, as well as executive shadowing opportunities – all designed to promote, mentor and retain diversity.

At Diageo, the firm aims to have its senior leadership team 35 percent female by 2020. It also focuses on all levels within the company – so graduate and mid-career development programs are not forgotten. It has policies in place to foster inclusion and diversity, including ‘maternity and paternity policies, and flexible working opportunities including a selection of part-time jobs, job shares, the ability to work remotely or compressed hours,’ and it supports networks that promote diversity, such as Spirited Women, says Rolston.

The big deal

But what’s the problem with all this? Depending on how you look at diversity – or where you stand on the issue perhaps – you might simply feel that investor relations is, after all, in better shape than many other finance functions, at least when it comes to the overall gender split. So what’s the big deal?

Even if you look at this only from the point of view of getting the best candidate into every role, however, there’s still a problem. ‘If we were to continue in the state of having a 50:50 male-female split in the profession as a rule, but the majority of the senior roles being taken by men, then I would speculate that some of the best candidates are being overlooked for the job,’ points out Scholes.

Mora agrees: if women aren’t equally represented, the result is that ‘we are stifling key talent that can contribute materially to the growth and success of a company,’ she says.

So what could other companies be doing to emulate the diversity successes at Cisco and Diageo? ‘Companies need to encourage women to be bold and push themselves forward,’ says Rolston. ‘Sometimes you need a nudge in the right direction, it doesn’t always come naturally.’ One suggestion is mentoring, something both firms have a focus on. ‘At Diageo, for example, we have recently implemented a mentoring program for our women in finance to inspire and develop a future pipeline of female leaders for the function,’ Rolston adds. Mora emphasizes this point: it’s important that women ‘collaborate with and mentor other women to continue the evolution that, while slow, is happening.’ 

‘Don’t let fear get in your way,’ she says. ‘Sometimes women feel intimidated in the workplace or lack the confidence to push through boundaries. It’s important we expect more and ask for more.’ This advice is echoed by both Cooper and Scholes, who explain that women especially tend to assume that hard work is enough. But, says Scholes, ‘sometimes you need to make sure your boss knows you are looking for the next step up.’ 

*Stock exchange research carried out in February 2017

On the money

When it comes to IR pay, the gender gap is alive and well. While all heads of investor relations take home a pay packet in the same global median range of between $150,000 and $199,000, almost half of male IR chiefs take home more than this, according to the IR Magazine Global Salary Report 2016. This compares with just 36 percent of female IR bosses earning more than $200,000 a year. 

‘Furthermore, 22 percent of male IR heads earn $250,000 and above, while only 13 percent of women manage the same,’ write the report authors. Globally, Europe is the only region where – though not equal – median male and female pay falls into the same bracket. Among both North American and Asian heads of investor relations, median pay is one bracket higher for men than for women.


Making it to the top

Marilyn Mora, head of global IR at Cisco, Sharon Rolston, head of IR at Diageo, Sue Scholes, board director at the UK’s IR Society, and Pavita Cooper, founder and director of career insight firm More Difference and steering committee member at the 30% Club, offer some tips for women looking to make it into those heads of IR roles – and beyond. 

1. Make your intentions known. ‘Don’t be afraid to reach out to the current leader to seek a conversation on what it would take for you to grow further in your IR career,’ advises Rolston. This is something any boss will appreciate, agrees Cooper. ‘Tell him or her, This is what I want,’ she says. ‘Then, together, you can set maybe three goals over six months that will help you gravitate toward that.’ 

2. Don’t rest on your work. ‘Women often think, Surely all I have to do is work really hard and that’s enough,’ notes Cooper. But it isn’t enough. Sometimes you have to make your achievements known. ‘If there is a classic mistake many women make, it is that they are so good at getting the job done that they forget to tell people they are doing the job,’ says Scholes. ‘And many men are far better at that than women are.’ 

3. Don’t forget to network. ‘Often when you talk to women about networking they see it as a bad thing, a dirty word, something men do that women don’t have time for on top of everything else,’ says Cooper. In IR in particular, however, networking is critical. 

Rolston and Mora echo this sentiment. ‘I encourage women to network with other professional women, to be a role model and to connect with others as much as possible,’ says Mora, while Rolston notes that this is something she continues to do herself. ‘I am always keen to network externally with other IR teams and leaders to understand how they built their careers and what tips I could take on board,’ she says.

This article appeared in the summer 2017 issue of IR Magazine

Garnet Roach

Garnet Roach joined IR Magazine in October 2012, working on both the editorial and research sides of the publication. Prior to entering the world of investor relations, her freelance career covered a broad range of subjects, from technology to...

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