When Women in Finance Miss the Memo: A Q&A With Deloitte’s Carol Larson

Combating unconscious bias and other challenges facing women in finance roles.


Deloitte recently announced the appointment of Carol Larson, a senior audit partner at Deloitte, to the newly created role of Champion for Women Executives in Finance for the CFO Program.

FEI Daily spoke with Larson on developing the next generation women CFOs and championing the advancement of women finance executives.

FEI Daily: What does this appointment mean to you?

Carol Larson: The appointment is interesting in and of itself. I have been a facilitator for a number of our CFO transition labs over the last three years or so. It just so happened that I did several within a short time frame, somewhat back to back, and they involved female CFOs. I had a couple observations about those transition labs, so I went to talk to Sandy Cockrell (Deloitte’s Global CFO Program Leader). Before I left his office, we had basically created this entire role.

I will confess when we first came up with, you've got the adrenaline going, like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah’, and the next morning you're like, ‘Oh, my goodness. What did I just agree to?’ For so many years many high-potential women have not wanted to associate with women programs, under the guise of ‘If I keep pointing out I'm different, how am I ever going to be treated the same?’

As I thought about it, I wondered if we would be able to get women to really want to come to these kinds of discussions? Will they want to be in women-only discussions? I've been very surprised that they really do. And it's not a men versus women thing, but I think they are much more willing to, and want to, hear what others are encountering and hearing how they're dealing with it. How many times have you said that: Is it just me, or is X happening?

There’s so much research showing that having women in top leadership roles leads to companies performing better across the board. We've all been to the diversity classes. Everybody brings a different perspective and, to me, business is a team sport, and having people with different perspectives that have different abilities to really focus on areas of the business can only help enhance the performance of that organization. It also shows a bit of courage and curiosity by a company that is brave enough to ask those kind of questions and bring those sorts of people and different views to the table.

I always find it interesting when you have an individual that you're dealing with that is a bit of a bully, pounding on the table, and ‘this is how it's going to be.’ I often find that it's somewhat defensiveness. The louder they are, the less they have to worry about challenging questions and challenging perspectives and it's in that challenge that you really grow and you find where your weaknesses are.

To me, having that diverse group of people around the table gives you a much more complete picture of your business.

FEI Daily: Tech is making a push to attract young women (App camp for girls, STEM). Does finance need to do the same?

Larson: I was thinking about that just the other day. You read about all the girls that code, those sorts of real outreach efforts and I do believe we need to find a way to do something similar.

There's one aspect that we need to do a much better job of and that’s in describing the vision of what a career in finance really looks like. I don't mean, ‘what you're going to do year one?’ I mean what is the vision of a career in finance?

I will tell you, I've been blessed with a wonderful career. In finance we have this terrible moniker that we're number crunchers and it makes it sound like we're in a closet somewhere, never talking to anyone, when, for me, it's been absolutely the opposite.

Good decisions have to have a number of elements. One element is the numbers and the logic and how it’s going to play out against the objectives. I don't think many people see that as the vision for a career in finance, and I believe we really need to describe that better. You can change your career in finance over your life. For the millennials who, bless their hearts, are going to live to 130, they're going to have to work until they're 110, so they're going to want ways to change their careers over their life span. You can do it in a finance role. You can change what you do, but that basic finance background and logic around the business is the foundation. I don't think a lot of people see that vision and we need to do a better job of describing that vision.

FEI Daily: What are some of the challenges women face once in finance roles?

Larson: Unconscious bias is obviously one of the biggest problems and the hardest things to solve. Men have it. Women have it. Everybody has it. You go for what's familiar. You go for what you know, and you make assumptions. How do we really get behind that unconscious bias?

I hear from high-level women, not just second-year staff people, this confusion over, ‘Why am I not on the inside of this discussion? Why am I not knowing how this happens or that happens?’

If you feel like you're not part of that inner circle, that's when you start to lose the connection with the entity. I think it's really important for women to hold up the flag when they feel like something's not complete or right and I think companies also have to do a much better job of finding ways to push their leaders and their managers to seek out those folks with talents that may not be as obvious right from the get-go.

You still find women feeling like they've missed some memo. They've missed some message that the guys all got and the women somehow didn't get the code they were supposed to understand to make something happen. A lot of that is, again, the unconscious bias. It's also just the comradery, since men still hold many of the leadership positions. They have more of those opportunities to have those discussions walking down the hall that women don't have nearly as much. We've got to find ways to get that code out in the open so everybody knows what the code is and can participate.