Why are there not more Female Leaders in Internal Audit?

Female Leaders in Internal Audit

I recently had a detailed conversation with one of the senior Internal Audit leaders in our network about diversity within company leadership. He had been tasked with specifically looking at the lack of women in senior finance positions. Clearly diversity covers a far broader area than simply the gender divide, but this article will focus on this particular issue.

This remains a critical problem for teams, companies and society, however the solutions are often crowded out by the volume and complexity of the variables involved.

There are many, and I won’t go into them all here. However I did want to highlight an obvious link that so often goes unmentioned.

What is this missing link? Retention. (We discuss some of the broader drivers of retention in an earlier article; The 10 steps to building and retaining a highly productive team )

Why is retention so important for diversity, specifically in closing the gap between men and women in leadership roles?

The reality is that those who follow the professional path of finance, of audit, are now evenly represented at the start of their career. If we look across the majority of teams in professional services, or in house, they are evenly split, on occasion we actually see a higher representation of female auditors.

So if that is the case; and this hasn’t just happened it has been the case for a number of years now, we should be seeing a natural levelling of any disparity of female leaders in internal audit.

… unfortunately we are not.

If this equality at the start of careers simply continued up the career ladder then all would, eventually, be well. However I am afraid to say it isn’t. The numbers are improving, but at a middle management level there is a disparity that should by now have gone away.

The premise of this article is that this is caused by retention issues and that teams and organisations need to focus their attention on how they are nurturing, developing and retaining female leadership talent.

Nurturing Female Leaders in Internal Audit

This is a complex area, and I am very conscious that generalisations can be misleading. Nevertheless there are certain key themes running through both the issues and the solutions. I will touch on three of them below, whilst acknowledging there are many others you could consider.

IAC - Internal Audit Executive Search - Nurturing and Retaining Female Leaders
IAC – Internal Audit Executive Search – Nurturing and Retaining Female Leaders

1. Behaviours and Competencies

If a cohort of well educated, high potential individuals are gender balanced, why when it comes to promotion do we still at times see an imbalance in outcomes?

Part of this is down to a historical cultural hangover as to what good leadership behaviours and competencies look like. What I mean by this is that some leadership behaviours are often described in masculine terms, which means that at times women are overlooked due to not being perceived to demonstrate these behaviours.

Much of this comes down to language. If we talk about “beating the competition”, getting a team “up for the fight”, “conquering the challenge”, the reality is that for most people, consciously or not, they perceive a leader who can “beat”, “fight” and “conquer” as male.

However if we look at the competencies required to achieve those aims in a modern business environment, there is no gender disparity whatsoever, and many female leaders would be better placed to achieve the desired outcome. Out dated language causes a perception issue.

In Jim Collins’ inspiring business leadership book, ‘Good to Great’ he refers to the very best leaders as ‘Level 5 leaders’, some of his analysis is surprising:

“While Level 5 leaders can come in many personality packages, they are often self-effacing, quiet, reserved, and even shy.”

His analysis turns our outdated views on leadership behaviours on their head…

Another issue, again probably culturally driven is that many women often appear less keen to proactively push themselves forward for promotion. I do not feel qualified to comment on the reality and/or foundation of this, but without a doubt the perception this this is the case certainly exists.

In some organisations this makes senior leaders feel that women don’t want to be promoted, and in others they feel that this lack of push is in fact a missing leadership competency in itself.

2. Development and Promotion Process

As mentioned above there is still, both overtly and sub-consciously, a view that many women don’t want to progress on to positions of leadership so they will often miss out on development opportunities, mentors and conversations that help with the development and promotion process.

The process in far too many organisations is then based on who knows who best and is willing to advocate for them. This sits alongside an assessment of behaviours and competencies based on the cultural and language issue highlighted above.

Too few organisations have a leadership development programme that picks up potential early and nurtures and develops it. Therefore many are left to simply replicate the behaviours they see above them, which leads to repeating the same patterns and outcomes.

3. Maternity

I always feel a little wary writing about this as a man. I have no wish to claim expertise, or experience I do not have, or to assume other peoples thoughts or feelings. However I do my best to observe and to listen, and I think it is obvious men also need to stand up and say that our system still doesn’t work properly.

The period of time during which children come into our lives still tends to stop the careers of many women. To be very clear I do appreciate that for many that is a choice and one they are very happy with. My point covers those women who genuinely would like to find a way to progress their career, and this includes those women who are happy with their choice only because the alternative work option is so deeply unattractive or simply impossible to make work. The detailed solution to this is too big and complex for this article, however two points are abundantly clear to me:


1. There is a cohort of highly educated, talented, and able female leaders in internal audit whose skill society and business are missing out on.

2. This is happening due to a lack of will to build a flexible system that caters for all aspects of a normal human life.

It is not beyond our capabilites to build systems that allow men and women to have families, to build careers and to be leaders of the future. We just need to invest the time and money to do it. The ROI on this investment is huge. To retain good leaders, to retain hard working, loyal, motivated, creative people will generate a return well beyond the costs involved.

We need to embrace in full concepts such as; flexible hours, flexible work locations, trust, mentor programmes, transparency, outcomes focus, inclusive cultures, and we need to have organisations that focus on the long term, developing individuals over time, understanding and nurturing their core skills, and ensuring promotion paths that look for those core skills, not outdated, poorly worded behaviours. We need to display a willingness to think outside the box, such as Term time contracts.

One size does not fit all, many women will still prefer to spend more time at home with children and many men will not. However this must not prevent the identification, nurturing and promotion of women with the potential for leadership, we are all lesser for the absence of a more gender balanced generation of leaders.

While Level 5 leaders can come in many personality packages, they are often self-effacing, quiet, reserved, and even shy. Every good-to-great transition in our research began with a Level 5 leader who motivated the enterprise more with inspired standards than inspiring personality.

Jim Collins Good to Great https://www.jimcollins.com/concepts/level-five-leadership.html

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Published by davidhaylor

Founder and CEO of IAC. My role is to provide the strategy, direction and leadership for IAC. Operationally I focus on delivering the very best Internal Audit leadership talent for our clients across the US.

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