The battle for female compliance talent

January 20, 2015

The under-representation of female talent at C-suite level is well documented. For example, in 2007, a Forbes magazine article said, ‘The proverbial glass ceiling is actually made of cement.’ And the evidence is equally damning. According to Catalyst, a global non-profit organisation that works to expand opportunities for women in business, only 5.2 percent of chief executive officers of Fortune 500 companies and 5.4 percent of Fortune 1000 companies are women.

Although still a comparatively young profession, compliance, in contrast, has been extremely successful in attracting female talent. According to digital news outlet Quartz, approximately 60 percent of members of the Society of Cooperate Compliance and Ethics (SCCE) are women, while 72 percent of respondents to a 2008 Health Care Compliance Association survey were women.

However, the compliance profession is no different from others in terms of the challenges it faces in trying to retain female talent; more specifically, accommodating the desire for a mid-career break to start families and raise children.

Retaining female compliance talent

Traditionally, one of the major challenges facing employers across all industry sectors has been retaining female talent. Although a career in compliance presents ambitious women with fantastic opportunities to develop the skills and experience needed for the C-suite, much of that talent is lost to the industry if the woman takes indefinite time off to raise a family. However, there are many initiatives that encourage women to return to the workplace after having children and make the transition easier.

Daiichi Sankyo’s Director of Compliance Investigations Heather Reilly Powell says that the compliance profession is better than many when it comes to valuing female talent. ‘Women in compliance are highly valued. We are not arbitrarily placed on the mommy track; our experience and skills are respected,’ she told Pharmaceutical Compliance Monitor.

In a 2000 research paper, ‘Women on Corporate Boards of Directors: International Challenges and Opportunities’, authors Mary C Mattis and Ronald J Burke stated that women’s professional advancement depended on ‘companies’ success in providing high potential women with those key development opportunities traditionally given to high potential men’.

International law firm Baker & McKenzie has several practices in place to retain and advance women, and has been one of Working Mother magazine’s best law firms for women for the past four years. As part of the firm’s ‘Women’s Initiative’, its female partners mentor non-equity female partners and associates to help them find business opportunities and advance within the firm. The firm has also introduced flexible work options to enable female staff to better balance their professional commitments with their home responsibilities.

Many other employers have launched similar initiatives to make it easier for women to raise children and continue to work at the same time.

For example, in 2013, Working Mother reviewed the flexible working practices at Chicago law firm Chapman and Cutler. ‘Associates [at Chapman and Cutler] can utilize flexible schedules, work off-site up to 18 days per year and cut their annual hours by as much as 40% while remaining eligible for nonequity partner,’ the magazine said. ‘Bonuses are based on effort and impact, not just billable amounts.’

Flexible work hours are not the only way to help mothers; on-site crèches can also benefit parents and employers alike. According to a report by Bloomberg, a recent Union Bank study showed that its on-site day-care programme had saved it between US$138,000 and US$232,000 in annual operations cost due to reductions in both turnover and absenteeism.

The concept of an on-site crèche has even been welcomed in jurisdictions such as India. A spokesperson for Hindustan Unilever told The Times of India, ‘[A crèche] helps employees to focus on work without being worried about their little ones. This has positively affected performance and satisfaction, as measured through various internal surveys.’

Some companies are ahead of the game. FWD Group Management’s Hong Kong–based Group Head of Compliance Julie Winkler said that because women are already well represented in her workplace, her company had no real need to implement formal gender-diversity initiatives.

Many companies prefer to adopt a flexible approach to the issue of attracting and retaining female talent. Civitas Capital’s Dallas-based Chief Compliance Officer Laurie Roberts said, ‘One of our team members recently got married and her husband has an excellent job in Austin. She does excellent work and we wanted to keep her, so she works remotely and is in our office for one week a month.’

A golden opportunity

Greater enforcement vigour on the part of regulators has pushed compliance to the forefront of the agendas of multinational organisations. As a result, compliance officers are finding themselves presented with opportunities that were not available a number of years ago. And given the breadth of their exposure to all levels of seniority within a company, as well as their degree of authority over certain departments, compliance officers are afforded the opportunity to develop skills that are increasingly relevant for the C-suite.

Compensation for senior compliance positions has also been steadily increasing over recent years, and this should influence the war for talent. According to Quartz, starting salaries are growing by 3.5 percent a year, while unemployment among compliance professionals is almost two percent lower in the United States than the national average. Large companies are paying salaries of up to US$232,000 per year for compliance officers, while hedge funds are paying up to US$800,000 per year. This all nurtures a scenario whereby financial progression for senior compliance professionals will likely involve the targeting of senior management positions such as those in the C-suite.

The greater concentration of women in the profession represents a chance to finally break the ‘cement ceiling’. As women continue to hone compliance expertise and experience career growth within the compliance hierarchy, this will naturally lead to the presence of more women taking up Chief Compliance Officer (or equivalent) positions which often sit at C-suite level. In addition, the transferable skills gained from working in the compliance function, such as change management and influencing senior executives, will make compliance officers strong contenders for other C-suite positions not directly tied to compliance.


Company boards that embrace gender diversity significantly outperform those that do not. For example, companies with three or more female directors outperform boards with no female representation by over 84 percent in terms of return of sales, over 60 percent on return of investment capital, and over 46 percent on return of equity, according to Catalyst.

With such evidence in place, it remains up to companies to introduce initiatives that allow female compliance professionals to combat traditional barriers and push on into the C-suite.

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