The P&L Gap: The Challenges of Women Owning P&Ls

When it comes to knowing the numbers behind the running of your organisation, do you take a proactive approach or avoid the conversation as far as possible? If you answered the latter, it’s time to think differently about your career objectives.

It’s often thought that financial profit & loss (P&L) experience has nothing to do with one’s role in marketing, communications, human resources, and so forth. This belief is false as finance transcends all industries – whether one’s role is heavily tied to finance or nowhere near the CFO’s office. All business decisions are based upon budget and revenue management no matter the organisation.

A McKinsey study (Women in the Workplace 2021) recently reported that women are underrepresented in profit & loss roles at every level of the corporate pipeline. Since many CEOs come from these roles, this dramatically hurts women’s odds of reaching the top.

While the P&L gap occurs at every level, there’s one critical step where the gap gets much wider: early executive roles. Nearly 81% of executive men had taken P&L responsibility at this level, but only 63% of women had. The large gap at this step is crucial because nearly all C-suite positions require P&L responsibility.

Achieving gender parity is a lucrative business opportunity. It’s an opportunity for growth, rather than a diversity problem.  But it’s not about advancing just a few women. The accountability for improving gender balance puts the focus on leaders and leadership—all organisational functions and levels need to be aligned.

Without a proactive eye toward gender balance, women fall out of the high-potential pipeline—and never make it back in.

P&L (Profit & Loss) roles are mission critical

Sadly, the percentage of women in C-suite level positions is largely driven by the percentage of women in P&L roles. So, what accounts for the gap between women and men getting P&L responsibility, even those who work in the same function? It likely comes down to information and mentoring.

What is concerning is that women do not receive equal information to support and enter P&L roles. A report by the Working Mother Research Institute found that in the past two years, 48% of men vs. 15% of women say they have received detailed information on career paths that lead to P&L jobs with 46% of men vs. 14% of women encouraged to consider P&L roles.

We can’t always trust others with our success. So, what can we be doing as women to ensure that we receive equal opportunity?

In a recent master class on women owning P&Ls, some key insights were unpacked from panellists across the tech, pharmaceutical and banking industries.

Here are just a few:

Fill your gaps. There are no specific qualifications or certifications required – be clear on your skillset gaps and research how best to fill them. As Fumani Matlhare from Roche Diagnostics highlighted, “you need to know what you know and what you don’t know.” Often, it’s more about curiosity, asking questions, and understanding the value chain and how the parts fit together than gaining advanced financial expertise.

Understand the macroeconomic trends. These improve how the business operates and help you gain a thorough understanding of the value chain of the business so you can understand which of the business levers you need to influence.

Understand the role. The lifestyle demands of a role in P&L can be tough, but no more so than many other roles. “You are a magnet to yourself” is how Mel Botha of AWS explained it. She says that some of her most challenging lifestyle periods were in a marketing role and not a P&L role.

Be deliberate and clear on what you want. If you want to pursue a P&L role, look around at whom you need in your corner and build those relationships to align to your end goal, but make sure they’re reciprocal. Sponsors will keep coming back to you if you enable them in return and when you pay it forward.

Don’t be afraid.It’s not rocket science – just ask!” Mel Botha (AWS). Ask the questions you need to – there are no stupid questions! Ask until you have the in-depth understanding you need of the business and the numbers

Own your career and watch your inner negative voice. Michelle Knowles of Absa highlighted that the key to getting ahead is putting up your hand and getting involved to expose yourself to career opportunities.



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