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​Breaking Through

Women in business are taking on the barriers to advancement, and that’s good news for everyone. ​

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​What if you were told that gender diversity increases overall corporate revenue? In fact, a 2016 study by EY and the Peterson Institute for International Economics found that although female CEOs neither underperform or outperform male CEOs, an increase in the share of women in top management positions “from zero to 30 percent would be associated with a 15 percent rise in profitability.” And according to Ilene Lang, former president and CEO of Catalyst Inc., a nonprofit organization that promotes inclusive workplaces for women, “Research continues to show that diversity well managed yields more innovation and is tied to enhanced financial performance — factors good for all employees.” Yet, the number of women in leadership positions continues to significantly lag that of men.

I recently facilitated a session on the topic of women in internal auditing at The IIA’s International Conference in New York City. The session, Women Rising — Succeeding in Internal Audit and Leadership, was led by three female internal audit leaders: Jenitha John, CAE for FirstRand Bank in Sandton, South Africa; Bethmara Kessler, former CAE and now senior vice president, integrated global services, at Campbell Soup Co. in Camden, N.J.; and Dominique Vincenti, vice president, internal audit and financial controls, at Seattle-based Nordstrom. The conversations among the women highlighted that, although the skills needed by female and male internal auditors are virtually the same, women in the profession may face particular challenges.  

Follow-up conversations with the three women, as well as other experts in gender equality, point out the challenges women continue to face in working toward the C-suite.

Lack of Support

Not surprisingly, all of the 50 or so attendees at the IIA session were women, even though it’s been shown that women’s initiatives, to be successful, need the support of senior leaders, most of whom are men. According to Lang, “The preponderance of men in leadership means their efforts are necessary to advance change in the workplace.” Yet men are sometimes reluctant to participate in women’s initiatives, according to Engaging Men in Gender Initiatives: What Change Agents Need to Know, a Catalyst study by Jeanine Prime and Corinne Moss-Racusin.

One of the reasons is the erroneous belief that gains for women result in losses for men, known as a zero-sum mentality. Some organizations may inadvertently foster this mentality by focusing on individual performance and unduly increasing competition, rather than focusing on initiatives that raise corporate performance as a whole, according to the Catalyst study.

“Support from male leaders, in the form of mentorship (career advice and insights) and sponsorship (awareness and access to growth and visibility opportunities), is integral to our ability to systemically and sustainably impact the career progression of women,” Kessler says. “Helping them realize the impact their partnership can have on the success of female talent is an effective method for soliciting their involvement and generating buy-in.”

Encouraging sponsorship and deploying strategies to bridge the female confidence gap should be a key imperative for senior leadership, John adds. Leadership must support the unconscious bias dialogue among its workforce to tackle gender-conscious conversations, and have open and courageous discussions about the ways men and women can support each other going forward.

Adequately communicating the benefits that flow to everyone from diversity and inclusion is an important step toward achieving support for women in the workplace. Rewarding individuals who provide support for diversity and inclusion through acknowledgement and bonuses tied to overall performance can also go a long way.  


Another reason men sometimes don’t participate in women-focused initiatives in the corporate setting is because they are not included or encouraged to from the beginning. “Men should be enthusiasts for the achievement of gender equality and women’s rights,” John says.  According to Joelle Jay, an executive coach specializing in leadership development, women’s sponsorship programs must involve men and start with data to successfully show quantifiable results of moving women into leadership positions. Women’s initiatives “that aren’t backed by action amount to little more than the revving of an engine with the parking break firmly engaged,” Jay says. Mike Kaufmann, chief financial officer of Cardinal Health, was quoted in The Wall Street Journal saying, “If you want to change the numbers, you have to get men involved.” Kaufmann led the women’s network at Cardinal Health, and has won awards for his support of women in the workplace.   

“Early engagement, regular iteration of results (qualitative and quantitative), and celebrating and communicating successes can be effective in maintaining program support and momentum,” Kessler says. “It’s also a path to drawing in additional support. As word and visibility of the return on investment spreads, executives will want to be associated with business and talent impacting results.”

Ensuring that men play an integral part in the planning, and share in the success of women’s initiatives, are critical to achieving desired program goals. Champions of gender initiatives need to get and maintain active male support from the C-suite, and from all levels of leadership in the organization.  


Men sometimes don’t participate in or support women’s initiatives because of apathy, according to the Catalyst study, or a sense that these issues don’t apply to them. However, the reason some men are advocates or champions for gender diversity is that they possess a strong sense of fairness. “Men who were committed to the ideal of fairness were found to have more personal concerns about issues of equality in general and were more aware of gender bias in the workplace and likely to take action,” according to the same study.

“At Nordstrom, we help men in the workplace connect with gender diversity challenges on a more personal basis,” Vincente says. “They have sisters, wives, or daughters and they care about their success.”

Kessler also says that finding a personal connection can be an effective method in combating apathy by helping men generate empathy and connect to the cause. “Do your research and engage him in conversation — does he have a daughter? A wife? Are there women who have played an influential role in his life?,” she asks.

The Gender Consciousness Program at FirstRand is sponsored by the CEO and deputy CEO. As John explains, “The ultimate goal of the program is learning enough about the differences between men and women to effectively access and connect with FirstRand’s talent across the organization. Part of that goal is embedding Stephen Covey’s quote, ‘Strength lies in differences and not in similarities.’”

Training, education, and communication on the causes of gender bias, and the positive reasons why some people do support diversity, inclusion, and fairness, are key to overcoming this misconception.

Our Own Worst Enemy

Breaking Boundaries
International Conference attendee Johanna Salo, internal audit director at UPM in Helsinki, shares the top 10 lessons learned from “Women Rising — Succeeding in Internal Audit and Leadership.” These lessons are for anyone looking to break down gender barriers and succeed in his or her career.

  • Be you. Rather than adapt others’ expectations for your current role, be yourself.
  • Seize the moment. While going with the flow, stay alert to understand defining moments in your life.
  • Integrate your life. Internal audit is not a 9 to 5 job, so learning how to integrate your personal and professional life, by setting boundaries and priorities, is important.
  • Earn respect. Politics are present in every company, so internal audit’s success often depends on sales and conflict management capabilities.
  • Stay behind facts. Validate people, but stay independent and objective when delivering messages.
  • Be realistic and practical. Remember to think critically and get to the root cause to make a difference.
  • Forget silos. The best way to provide assurance is to have a holistic risk view of the organization.
  • Think context before issue. Consider the magnitude of issues vs. overall context and related dependencies. Optimize efficiencies rather than pinpoint single deficiencies already known by management.  
  • Rethink reporting. No matter what is intended in written communications, the reader may perceive it differently. Interactive issue remediation can go a long way to make sure you are both on the same page.
  • Aim at destination with gratitude. Climbing the organizational ladder is often harder for women, so embracing each step with gratitude makes the journey more important than the destination.

Besides the lack of support from their male colleagues and male senior leaders, women are also holding themselves back. In a recently released Global Internal Audit Common Body of Knowledge (CBOK) Practitioner Study report, Women in Internal Auditing: Perspectives From Around the World, women assessed themselves lower than men in the 10 internal audit core professional competencies: professional ethics; internal audit management; application of the International Professional Practices Framework; governance, risk, and control; business acumen; communication; persuasion and collaboration; critical thinking; internal audit delivery; and improvement and innovation.     

Particularly, women rated themselves much lower than men in internal audit management and business acumen. However, lest anyone jump to the conclusion that women are not as well represented in leadership ranks because they actually lack these competencies, consider that research has proven that women consistently rank themselves lower than men.

In fact, Stanford University sociologist Shelley Correll conducted a study where both male and female participants were required, in 20-item rounds, to determine how much white or black appeared on a screen to assess their “contrast sensitivity ability,” a completely fictional skill. Unbeknownst to participants, there were no right or wrong answers, as the amount of black and white were equal in all 20 rounds. However, men assessed their “contrast sensitivity ability” higher than women, and expressed an interest in pursuing a career requiring this ability more often than women.  

“Confidence is a critical, yet often underrated skill with women,” Kessler says. “They tend to believe they either have it or they don’t, which isn’t true. It should be practiced and cultivated along with resilience, which women are usually more apt to focus on.”

Helping women, and their male colleagues, understand that this phenomenon exists, as part of the agenda of a women’s support or initiative program, is a positive step in addressing this issue.  

A Double Standard

In a 2014 Pew Research Center survey on women and leadership, four in 10 survey respondents say that women must do more to prove themselves than their male colleagues.

“The double standard is tough,” Kessler says. “First, because it is a real and not wholly imagined phenomenon, but also because part of it is within our own minds. The first step in combating it is in realizing that you do not need to strive for perfection or absolute alignment to aim for or achieve goals — there are many roads to the same destination.”

One of John’s life mottos is, “Competence builds confidence.” She ventures into unchartered territories, learns as much as she can, and shares her wisdom and opinions. “I also complemented my audit career by becoming a nonexecutive director on boards, which didn’t go unnoticed,” she says. “Learning how to change setbacks into setups will help women overcome any obstacles along their journey.”

Quantifying the number of men vs. women promoted at each level, and setting goals to ensure equality in criteria and rates of promotion, is fundamental to resolving this issue.

Gender Bias

During the session at the International Conference, panelists John, Kessler, and Vincenti discussed another challenge women face: the motherhood penalty. Coined by sociology researchers Correll and Stephen Bernard, it implies that if two equal candidates are presented, the mother is less likely to be recommended to be hired, and would be paid approximately US$11,000 less in salary if she was. Other challenges faced by professional women include a clash of family and work priorities, stereotyping and bias caused by gender norms, lack of social connectivity or inclusion in networks, and lack of sponsorship or mentors.

These issues may be addressed through training, education, and communication; acknowledging that these issues exist; and appealing to all leaders’ sense of fairness to achieve resolution.

Closing the Gap

The CBOK study found that although women in internal auditing are making advances, there continues to be a gender gap, particularly in the more senior ranks. According to the study, women comprise 44 percent of internal audit staff, and only 33 percent of directors and senior managers.

Although some progress has been made in achieving gender diversity in the internal audit profession, in general, the pace has been slow. Initiatives to achieve gender diversity are key, as is tracking the quantifiable success of such programs, to addressing the gender gap. Finally, showcasing female role models in the internal audit profession, like Kessler, John, and Vincenti, may provide inspiration to those looking to advance their careers.  

Nancy Haig
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About the Author



Nancy HaigNancy Haig<p>Nancy Haig, CIA, CCSA, CRMA, CFSA, was most recently the director of internal audit and compliance for a global consulting firm in New York.<br></p>


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