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New group empowers women in finance to break down barriers

Ahead of International Women's Day, The CFO sheds light on a group of women making significant strides by breaking down barriers, one connection at a time

Imagine discovering that a former male colleague, who had the same job as you, had been earning significantly more than you were all along. That is exactly what happened to Billie O’Connor, CFO of Milk and More earlier in her career.

But instead of letting it get her down, she turned it into a catalyst for change.

O’Connor realised her male colleague had been confident enough to ask for what he believed he was worth, while she had not. This experience, along with the experiences of other women in finance, led her to co-create NOVA – a close-knit peer-to-peer network working group of women in finance.

Through NOVA, these women share their knowledge and learnings on social media; from addressing the gender pay gap to strengthening relationships with CEOs. And their efforts are not in vain – the platform has gained impressive traction within the finance community, with an upcoming event planned for next month.

O’Conner who leads the finance team at Milk and More  – an online artisan grocery company offering its services to 350,000 customers in the UK –  tells The CFO that the aim of NOVA was to help women who had trouble networking, adding that not everyone was social and outgoing like her.

Billie O’Connor, CFO, Milk & More

“I feel that in general, women still need more confidence and assertion around their value and what they bring to an organisation, and therefore what that is worth,” she says.

O’Connor believes this is one of the reasons the the gender pay gap continues to exist.

“Although there are many other well documented factors at play, such as the impact that time off for maternity leave has taken in some cases on career progression, or the headwinds and challenges faced by minority groups, I do believe that recognising the value the female workforce is a crucial component of achieving gender equality,” she explains.

“Women must understand their worth and confidently assert the value they bring to the table,” says O’Connor

Connecting the dots for success

When establishing NOVA, O’Connor sought to create a space where women in finance can connect, meet, collaborate, and build long-lasting professional friendships.

She explains the network is divided into various cohorts of C- Suite women leaders – from CEO to digital director, CFO to operations director, HR director and CMO. She has also created groups for who she dubs as ‘just market curious’ women, those in finance from head of / financial controller level to group CFO.

The network also includes a Head of Finance / Financial Controller cohort – “the future CFOs”, she said. “We need to ensure the next generation of female finance leaders learn early the power of confidence and of having a strong network, alongside being able to do a good job, in order to continue to level the playing field”.

O’Connor said she hoped the network would help equip women to tackle the challenges they face in the finance sector, adding that the lead-up to the launch of NOVA uncovered some hard home truths for herself.

“I have been delighted with the interest and uptake, and we now have six events up and running,” she says. “However, as I worked through the messages from people wanting to join or support us, I’ve also looked more closely at my connections list.”

In conducting this exercise, O’Connor came to the realisation that she had four male CFO connections to every female. “[They are] amazing male colleagues, champions of women – but still – four to one?” she says.

For O’Connor, the realisation highlighted more starkly than before that progress is being made toward achieving greater diversity and inclusion, with increased publicity, studies, and reporting on the representation of women in leadership positions.

But there is still a long way to go, and this is evidenced by ongoing efforts to raise awareness and highlight disparities. “True equality will not be achieved overnight,” says O’Connor.

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