Women make inroads to internal audit's upper levels, but still find roadblocks along the way

The road to equality for women in the internal audit profession has been a bumpy one. It's led to some higher plateaus, sure, but it also has left plenty of hills still to climb.

Here's the good news: among most internal audit positions in North America, women have all but erased the gender gap and now occupy 51 percent of those jobs. Now for the bad news: among the top internal audit position—chief audit executive—women still lag behind their male counterparts, occupying less than 40 percent of CAE jobs, according to new survey results from the Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA).

When women do reach the CAE office, they tend to be smaller departments. Fewer women lead larger internal audit shops, with only 21 percent of female CAEs running departments of 10 or more employees, compared to 30 percent of male CAEs who lead departments of more than 10, according to the survey.

A Variety of Factors

So why are women finding it more difficult to rise to the top echelons of internal audit at the same rate as men? The IIA report, "Women in Internal Auditing: Perspectives from Around the World," part of the CBOK series from the IIA's The Internal Audit Foundation, offered some possible explanations. "By comparing these gender gaps, it is clear that the gaps are much larger at the CAE level than at lower levels in the organization. The larger gap at the CAE level may be driven by a variety of factors. For example, it is possible that more women than men may leave the workforce to pursue other priorities," writes the report's author, Margaret Christ. "An alternative explanation might be that although the gender gap is closing, there has not yet been time to close the gap at the highest levels of internal audit management. Advancement to leadership positions in any profession requires time," Christ explains.

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Another factor that could be limiting the advancement of women in internal audit is specialization, especially in IT areas. The IIA survey found that men were far more likely to have an IT specialization, with 12 percent reporting a technology focus, compared to just 6 percent of women internal auditors who specialize in IT. Women were also more likely to have no specialization (29 percent) when compared to men (22 percent).

Gender gap image

"Throughout my career as an internal auditor, I've seen first-hand the valuable contributions women offer both within their organizations and to the internal audit profession generally," said IIA global chairman Angela Witzany, who is also head of internal audit at Sparkassen Versicherung AG in Vienna, Austria. "As a global profession, we need to continue to enhance support of and training for women, so that they can continue to grow their skills and assume leadership roles. Organizations that value gender diversity benefit from a range of perspectives that can improve their ability to identify and address strategic risks."

Bleaker Picture Worldwide

When women have made great strides in the internal audit profession in North America, the picture in other global regions isn't as rosy. Globally, women represent 31 percent of CAEs, 33 percent of directors or senior managers, 34 percent of managers, and 44 percent of internal audit staff. Some regions lag far behind those global averages. In the Middle East and North Africa, for example, men compose 86 percent of non-CAE internal auditors, and in South Asia, nearly 8 in 10 internal auditors are men. Those figures are even higher for CAEs. Even in Europe, there is still a fairly wide gender gap. Women occupy 41 percent of non-CAE internal audit jobs and just 36 percent of CAE jobs.

While those numbers aren't encouraging, the report's authors suggest the gap is closing. "Throughout the world, more men than women work in the internal audit profession. Top management positions in internal audit are currently dominated by men, but the gap is narrowing, and in North America, the workforce is equally split below the CAE level," they write. "It seems likely that the gender gap in higher levels of internal audit management will continue to shrink in the coming years as the growing number of young women in internal auditing continue to advance in their careers."

Benefits of Women Internal Auditors

During a roundtable discussion and separate interviews on the survey results, conducted by IIA, female internal auditors highlighted what they see as the top benefits of being a woman in the internal audit profession. Here is a sampling of their observations:

• "Women are often collaborative, empathetic, good listeners, and team focused, which is important for client interactions, working or supervising teams, and communicating with management."

• "Women can provide a different perspective (from men), and diverse perspectives add value and drive better results."

• "When women supervise internal audit departments, they often recognize the importance of work-life balance for all employees."

• "Many organizations recognize the importance of having an internal audit department that reflects the clients that they serve."

The global survey, conducted last year, gathered responses from more 14,500 respondents, including 5,400 women, from 166 countries. The respondents were from all levels of internal audit jobs.