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​​​​​​Women at the Top

Six internal audit leaders share how they climbed the professional ladder.​

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T​here is a gender gap in internal audit positions that grows wider with each step up the corporate ladder, according to the Internal Audit Foundation’s 2015 Global Internal Audit Common Body of Knowledge (CBOK) Practitioner Survey. At the staff level, women hold 44 percent of the positions; at the management level, they represent only 34 percent. When it comes to the top rung — chief audit executives (CAEs) — the gap is wider still, with women holding 31 percent of those positions at publicly held companies. 

The CBOK study suggests a couple of factors that may indicate this imbalance is a numbers game. First, there are not as many women in management and executive roles simply because many women leave the workforce for other priorities. Another factor may be timing. Many women who are now eligible for higher positions entered the workforce decades ago, when fewer women worked outside the home — hence, the talent pool is smaller. 

But is the causality behind the gender gap that simple? The survey indicates that women possess a significantly lesser amount and depth of formal education, business-specific training, and professional certification than men. And women’s parental obligations make it difficult for many of them to accommodate the travel demands and long work hours that accompany advancement in the profession. They often are perceived as less competitive, ambitious, and adept at organizational politics — perceptions that may have more to do with traditional roles than reality. 

Collectively, women may feel the deck is stacked against them as they strive to advance to the top of the profession, but some have played their cards right. Here are six women who have beaten the odds.​

Liz Dantin Franklin

Chief Audit Officer
Fidelity National Financial Inc.
Jacksonville, Fla. 

Although Liz Dantin Franklin’s résumé reflects just two employers — a public accounting firm where she started as a staff auditor and Fidelity National Financial — she has weathered a sea change in how women are perceived in the workplace. “In 1989, the year I started, only two of the eight hires were women,” she recalls. ​As time went on, women became a bigger proportion of those hired and firms started focusing on retaining them. 

Although now she can laugh at some of her adventures in traveling globally while pregnant, less pleasant are the memories of being expected to set aside her gender to compete in a man’s world (see “Achieving a Balance” below​). “When I was put up for partner, someone I worked for told me I had better not show up pregnant during the selection process,” she says. It was already too late. She hid her pregnancy as long as possible, but the evidence soon showed. She made it to the last round of cuts but was told she was being deferred two weeks before the new partners were announced because of reductions in the number of partner admittances that year. “I will never know what the real reason was for being deferred,” she states. “But having a child may have interfered with their plans.”

Franklin’s skills positioned her favorably for advancement. She cites communication, technical skills, and flexibility as especially helpful in her move up the ladder. Being able to communicate with people at all levels of the organization and to apply her knowledge of internal audit and internal controls were key, while being flexible showed her “willingness to be available to accommodate client requests, as needed,” she says. 

Flexibility was in evidence in the partner track, which necessitated multiple relocations, made possible only by a husband who set aside his career to be a stay-at-home father. But, when a seventh relocation was requested, she took an offer from Fidelity National Financial instead. 

Today, Franklin mentors younger employees, urging them to focus on what they do well and to become adaptable. She encourages them to find a champion to show them opportunities and guide their experiences. And she advises not being afraid to take chances. “When I make a decision, I don’t look back,” she says. “Do your best and be confident that you have enough skills to make it work.”​

Brandi Thomas​

Vice President, Corpora​te Audit
Delta Air Lines
​ Atlanta

As a black female, I don’t always receive the instant respect and credibility that others do,” Brandi Thomas says. “I have shown up at industry events and had someone ask me to bring them another drink.” Thomas is accustomed to being “the only” in the room — the only woman, the only person of color. Perhaps that is why “Get up” is her mantra. “That’s what I do,” she explains. “I always get up to fight another day.” 

Thomas is convinced that diversity is important in internal audit because of the function’s broad charter. “Audit is both art and science,” she says. “Without diversity, it is easy to get caught up in only the science.” She also notes the positive impact of diverse candidates seeing people who look like them successfully navigating leadership positions. 

Although Thomas provides that role model for internal auditors, her career nearly took a different turn. She began college in a pre-med program. One physics class later, she knew she was in the wrong field. After graduating with a degree in finance, she went on to hold mostly audit and controllership positions — a background that gave her “an appreciation for the business implications of audit findings and for how to write and speak like a businessperson, not an auditor,” she says. 

But business focus is not enough. Thomas considers caring a key factor in her success: caring to deliver the best product she could, to respect those around her, and to help those coming after her. She notes this attitude is a strength many women bring to internal auditing. “I feel a responsibility to my company to make sure we are highlighting the right risks and truth-telling about the status of those risks,” she says. “Even if the ultimate message is not popular, I try to make sure no one is caught off guard.”

Given Thomas’ success, that college physics class was fortuitous. “Looking back on my career, I can see that I was always trying to move on from audit, but audit kept finding me,” she says. “Today, I think it is the coolest job on Earth.”​​

Kelly Gauger

Vice President, Audit Services
CenterPoint Energy Inc.

Kelly Gauger followed a roundabout path to her current position. Starting in external auditing for a public accounting firm, she transitioned from auditor to clie​nt, doing financial reporting and accounting in various manufacturing environments.

In 2001, Gauger joined CenterPoint Energy, managing U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission reporting until she was promoted to director of accounting, overseeing both “normal” and regulatory accounting for the business. “Regulatory accounting and reporting are very unique skills,” she explains. “However, gaining knowledge and experience in this area really enabled me to learn the business and helped position me for my current role.” She considers her transition to the internal audit role in 2012 as “a logical progression.”

While Gauger acknowledges that women are sometimes challenged in the workplace, she considers herself fortunate. She has observed instances of favoritism over the years, but says she has never experienced it personally. “If you stay true to yourself and always strive to exceed your own expectations, the opportunities and recognition will come,” she says. “I also believe that operational roles and certain industries are more prone to gender inequality in the workplace, compared to roles in the corporate arena.”

Gauger regularly mines her own experience to provide her audit team career guidance such as:

  • Never turn down an opportunity that comes along. It may not be an assignment you planned, but it could turn out well.
  • Attend roundtables and conferences and learn from CAEs you meet there.
  • Establish strong, ongoing relationships with stakeholders such as the audit committee chair, senior management, and key clients.
  • Never stop learning. Internal auditing is changing fast. “You can become part of it or become obsolete,” Gauger says. In fact, adaptability is what she looks for in her staff. “What I looked for 10 years ago is completely different from what I need now.”
  • To earn promotion, shift from doing to managing. “Learn how to delegate,” she says. “You can’t set strategic direction when you’re down in the weeds.”

Gauger acknowledges that she learns as much from her team members as she teaches them. “I advise building a strong team and empowering them,” she says. “You are only as good as they are.”

Mary-Margaret Henke

Senior Vice President, ​General Auditor
Western Union
​Englewood, Colo.

Mary-Margaret Henke attributes her rise to her current position to the “80-20 rule.” In her experience, 80 percent of the time invested in moving up the career ladder is focused on three things: 1) hard work, which encompasses technical knowledge and soft skills; 2) getting and leveraging a champion; and 3) luck. “I have found that if you have the first two things, you markedly improve your chances of having the third,” she says.

For Henke, hard work began with 10 years at PwC, then continued with progressively more responsible roles at CoBank, Janus Capital Group, and Western Union. Along the way, she added skills in preparing and auditing financial statements, implementing U.S. Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 compliance programs, and leveraging IT. When the CAE role opened at Western Union, she had the support of two key individuals and got the job. “I had worked hard for the chief financial officer and controller, so they championed me,” she explains. “Luck came into play when the person previously holding the position left.”

Her success had its challenges. A self-described “tightly wound Type A personality,” at first, she came across to clients, bosses, and co-workers as too aggressive. She does not know if she was judged this way because she is a woman, but she acknowledges that it was true. “I would drive action too quickly because that’s my nature,” she explains. But that does not mean assertiveness is wrong. “You need to be assertive in an intentional way,” she says. “The ‘best of me’ is a person who balances my assertiveness with stopping, listening, and obtaining more information before driving ahead.” 

Henke does not regret her mistakes. They have helped her improve what she considers to be one of women’s innate skills — a reliance on nuance rather than brute force. For her, the bottom line is, “Do you only want to be right or do you also want to be effective?” 

This viewpoint is especially important in internal audit. Hence her strong support of diversity in the profession. “I need the different perspectives that diversity enables,” she says. Henke will take the insights she gained as a CAE into her new role as Western Union’s senior vice president of corporate applications, governance, and transformational programs.​

Yulia Gurman

Packaging Corporation of America
Lake Forest, Ill.

As a Russian national and international student, kickstarting a career in the U.S. had additional complexities for Yulia Gurman: English is not her first language and finding a first job necessitated certain legalities. “Some companies do not wish to do visa sponsorships,” she explains, a challenge she overcame by networking. “I became active in campus accounting groups and made contacts in the accounting firm that ended up hiring me.”

After a few years in the accounting firm, she joined OfficeMax as a senior internal auditor. Not long after she became OfficeMax’s director of internal audit, the company merged with Office Depot and relocated its headquarters. Gurman, with two small children, declined the move and joined Retail Properties of America in a position that enabled her to create the internal audit department from scratch. Three years later, she landed her current position at the Packaging Corporation of America. She notes, “I was looking forward to the next challenge in my career. This was a perfect fit.”

But the new job had its adversity. Frequent changes in leadership within internal audit and the company’s executive team required her to adapt to the new individual’s style and priorities. Filling her team with the necessary talent in a competitive market also proved difficult. “I could overcome that by tapping into a student network we formed by connecting with universities,” she explains. “We promoted the company to them and captured their interest by sharing the great things our team accomplishes.”

Gurman advises women seeking to advance their careers to build a network and seek out mentors. Case in point: The person she replaced in the CAE position was the vice president who hired her for her first internal audit job at OfficeMax. He supported her candidacy for the company’s CAE position.

Gurman also urges women to get involved in high-profile projects, even if they have nothing to do with internal audit. “They give you a chance to show people what you are capable of doing,” she says. In her view, women have the same opportunity as men to become a CAE, but they must take control of their own career, even when it is not easy or pleasant.​

Jenitha John

FirstRand Bank
​Sandton, South Africa

Jenitha John credits a good road map for her success ​in reaching many personal and professional milestones over the past two decades. “I have three mottos that have shaped my journey: persistence pays profits, competence creates confidence, and setbacks sow setups,” she says. 

John has needed each of those signposts over the course of her life — starting well before she entered the workplace. “I grew up extremely poor and lost both my parents at a very young age,” she explains. “This meant learning how to fend for myself during my teenage years. It was a catalyst that drove me toward my goals.” 

John’s career was built in different industries and economic sectors — Toyota, Eskom, Telkom, Discovery, and now FirstRand — as she held audit and accounting positions and served as a nonexecutive director. She also completed a senior executive program at Harvard Business School and earned various professional certifications.

The path to success was not always smooth. John acknowledges the gender disparities. “Most industries I operate in are still patriarchal,” she says. “All jobs in the organization are still predominantly male, including my existing job.”

Despite such challenges, John is convinced women have the emotional intelligence and resilience to overcome all hindrances — to “wake up, dress up, and show up.” And she stresses the importance of diversity in business and internal audit. As organizations transform to respond to changing risks, internal audit must keep pace to reinforce its position as partner and advisor — a goal that John says depends on a diverse mix of skills, experiences, and perspectives.

Her commitment to harnessing diversity goes beyond internal audit, as she spearheads FirstRand’s “Let’s Connect” program. “The program is focused on learning about the differences among people, so we can effectively access and connect with the organization’s talent,” she explains. “We seek to embed Stephen Covey’s philosophy: ‘Strength lies in differences, not in similarities.’”

One of John’s favorite mementos is a text she received from a staff member because it reminded him of her. “The text included sentiments like: When it’s something you truly wish to do, there’s a way to get it done. If you don’t know how, you can learn. If you don’t have time, examine your priorities. If it seems too overwhelming, start with a tiny first step,” she recalls. “It made me feel special to know I had influenced someone’s aspirations. It’s how I’ve lived my life.”

The Reward Is Out There

To reach the top of their profession, these six women have expanded their skills, worked long hours in a variety of assignments, navigated the choppy waters of organizational politics, and learned to accept occasional failure as part of the game. They did not do it on their own. Each of them points to how mentors helped them improve their skills, told them hard truths, steered them around pitfalls, and encouraged them to pursue opportunities. 

These audit leaders also recognize that some of the qualities generally attributed to women — empathy, communication, and ability to reach compromise and build consensus — have served them well in their careers. And they have hope for women pursuing the profession’s top spot: Most see the gender gap narrowing. For women who are climbing the internal audit leadership ladder, the reward is out there, but it must be earned.  

​​​Achieving a Balance

A common theme underscored anecdotally by the women featured in this article and statistically by the CBOK Practitioner Survey is the challenge to balance professional and personal obligations. Women’s commitments as spouse and parent make it difficult for them to meet all the expectations, real or perceived, of a rising executive.

Balancing work with being a wife and mother can be heart-breaking, Jenitha John says. “Living with the guilt of basically outsourcing the kids was unbearable,” she recalls. “My kids were fortunate to have nannies, tutors, and au pairs to assist at home, but I felt guilty having to have help and juggle a career.” 

Liz Dantin Franklin agrees, “Of course, family was always a consideration,” she says. “Women tended to get married and have children about the time they became senior auditors.” But, while daunting, managing work/life balance is not impossible. Franklin points out that she achieved partnership in the accounting firm where she worked while having a family. 

The responsibilities of home and family teach valuable lessons, Yulia Gurman says. “I had a boss say to me, ‘You’re a mom. You know how to deal with kids. I know you will be able to deal with challenges here at the office successfully,’” she says. “In my experience, working mothers are valued and their need to balance home and work is accommodated, as long as they meet the expectations of the job.”

John managed to create an equilibrium that worked for her by “introducing non-negotiables and jealously guarding my time spent with my family.” For example, despite having tutors, she signs off on the homework diary before bed and she regularly attends school concerts and sport matches. 

As the percentage of women in the profession grows, their rising influence could help balance professional and personal obligations for all internal auditors. As Gurman notes, “Certain responsibilities cannot be delegated. You have to figure out how to make it work. It’s all about flexibility, but you need support from the top.”

Jane Seago
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About the Author



Jane SeagoJane Seago<p>​Jane Seago is a business and technical writer in Tulsa, Okla. </p>


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