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Chevron’s Pat Yarrington: Lessons from a top female financial executive

Happy August! In recognition of Women’s Day this month, we’re looking at what we can learn about female financial executives across the globe. We will spend the next few weeks gleaning insights from some of the best female financial executives around the world.

Historically, finance has been a male domain, and while demographics in the workplace have evolved, top financial executive positions are still largely held by men. As an example of this: Out of the top 500 companies on Fortune’s list, there is currently a grand total of 58 female chief financial officers. That means 11.6% of the top financial executives in the Fortune 500 are women, and almost 90% are men.

Companies ‘unwilling to deviate’ from the norm

The female representation seems a paltry amount, but it’s actually an improvement on previous years. A similar analysis conducted in 2010 revealed 14 less women than there are today, and the current figure is 30 financial executives more than there were in 2000. So the direction is right, but progress has been incredibly slow, with only one more top female financial executive on the Fortune 500 than there was last year.

Two possibilities could be drawn from these statistics: firstly, women could be shying away from financial leadership roles; or secondly (and, as history as shown, the more likely scenario) companies remain hesitant to deviate from the traditional profile when it comes to top leadership. Employment Equity laws in South Africa have induced more female representation at the most senior levels, but this often takes the form of human resource and corporate affairs, rather than the CEO, CFO or operations management roles.

Still, some of the most successful and established companies on Fortune’s list have taken the “gamble” and have female financial executives at the helm. The success of these companies attest to the fact that these women add a unique dynamic that is helping their companies see ongoing progress and growth.

We’ll be running a short series of blogs looking at a few of these remarkable women this month, and some lessons we can learn from them. First up is Pat Yarrington, the CFO of Chevron, which ranks third in the Fortune 500.

Pat Yarrington

Yarrington has worked for the petroleum giant for more than 30 years. During that time she’s held various operational leadership positions, including heading up Chevron Canada, and running the company’s strategic planning division. In addition, she’s a director of the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco. She became the CFO of Chevron in 2009 and steered the company through some of the lowest points of the recession. A company that traditionally makes its money from fossil fuels, they had to weather the increase of the oil price and the emergence of alternate energy forms. Yarrington’s philosophy through all of this has been to adapt quickly and think long term. While she sees a firm future for fossil fuels, Yarrington says there’s an opportunity for Chevron in clean energy. “It’s good for our shareholders and good for the economy,” she says.

Support and mentorship

When asked how she made it to the top as a female financial executive in a male-dominant environment, Yarrington told the Wall Street Journal: “It’s a whole series of things. In my life I had a number of people who were important and who set certain expectations. You start with your parents — they always said, “You can do anything you want to, just put your mind to it.”

I married an individual who’s very supportive of having a wife with a career. I have three great kids, and at various points when the decision came — should mom take this job if we have to move? — they basically said yes. If they had said no, I wouldn’t be sitting in the chair today. I also had two or three people that I can very discreetly point to, who gave me chances when they didn’t have to. I will also say I performed when those chances were given. So it’s that whole complexion that has gotten me to sitting in the chair today.”

Yarrington also pointed towards the importance of having a mentor who believed in her. She remembers being sent on an important assignment after only being in the company for a few years, and not feeling up to the task. Her boss at the time said: “Look, Pat, let me just tell you. Anytime I ask you to go into a room and represent me, I have complete confidence in you, and I expect you to take your full seat at the table. You are just as bright, just as capable, as anybody else you will meet. Never forget that, and always make sure your voice is known.”

Yarrington said: “That was 27 or 28 years ago. I think about that almost daily.”

If you are looking for decisive leadership from financial executives in your company, contact The Finance Team. We have formed a network with remarkable men and women who are both highly qualified and experienced. They can provide you with financial assistance on an interim or part-time basis as you need it.

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Image credit – www.frbsf.org

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