Why your organisation may be failing to recruit women

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Women hold fewer than one in five senior roles in finance. What techniques can create a better gender balance in your workforce?

Today, women make up nearly half (44.6%) of chartered and certified accountants working in the UK, according to ONS figures from March.  Anybody thinking this represents progress should probably think again: in 2014 ONS stats showed the number of female accountants to be 44%. The number of women working in the industry has only limped along at a paltry 0.6% over the last nine years.

A lack of senior-level role models

The problem becomes more acute when looking at company organograms, with the top tiers skewing heavily male. Women only make up 17% of partners at accountancy firms according to the latest research from the Financial Reporting Council CHK (FRC). At smaller practices, it’s just 11%.  

The lack of women at higher levels could explain why women in financial services are paid 23% less than men in the same roles (according to a Censuswide survey) and why they are 13% less likely to believe a career in accountancy is attainable than their male counterparts (Grant Thornton study, August 2023).

Fewer female start-ups

Recruitment is another issue. Although gender balance is strong in early careers  (55.8% of AAT students are female), some areas attract fewer women than others, such as audit and tax. Meanwhile, fewer women are starting their own accountancy firms, possibly due to a lack of investment. According to research from Instant Offices, just 12% of accounting/auditing businesses were established by women last year, down from 22% in 2021.

Although there is some good news – the FRC found 46% of managerial positions within accountancy are women, a figure that rises to 56% at smaller firms – it’s clear more work is needed.

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PwC and Grant Thornton are two accountancy firms that have made great advances in improving gender parity in recent years, with both companies recently named as The Times’ Top 50 Employers for Gender Equality.

Here, both firms discuss some of the barriers stymying progress for women in accountancy and what can be done about it…

Recruitment and promotion

The problem: Some areas of accountancy attract fewer women, such as audit, tax and analysis (just 37.5% of finance analysts and advisers are women, according to the ONS). Meanwhile, 69.5% of bookkeepers, payroll managers and wages clerks are women

The solution: Training to eliminate unconscious bias in the recruitment process; banning all-male shortlists; non-biased language in job adverts (businesses may invest in software such as Textio which helps employers write bias-free job adverts/descriptions); enhanced visibility of women at recruitment events.

Anne Hurst, inclusion lead, PwC: “The problem of benevolent bias exists within many companies. For example, sometimes an employer will say, ‘We shouldn’t give a female candidate a position because she’s got a young family and this role will require some travel’. The intention might be good, but employers shouldn’t make assumptions on the candidate’s behalf. At PwC, anybody who conducts a job interview has to undergo training so they know how to challenge this unconscious bias if it emerges.

In 2018, we also banned all-male shortlists for jobs. When we receive applications through external recruiters, sometimes there’s too many male candidates. If that’s the case, we ask the recruiters to source the talent more widely.

Getting people [from all backgrounds] chatting at recruitment fairs or at schools/universities, will help prospective candidates understand what it [inclusion] is like at your firm on a day-to-day basis.

Some areas in financial services tend to be more male-dominated than others, such as audit. PwC recently launched a Women in Audit campaign to inspire more women into an audit career and bust myths such as you can’t work in audit unless you have a mathematics/economics degree. This campaign educates people about what a career in audit is like, while we also use profiles [of women working in audit] on our careers site to show that people working in audit can come from all backgrounds and career journeys.”

Flexibility for working parents/carers

The problem: Advances for flexible/hybrid working since the pandemic have granted greater flexibility for many parents/carers. However, half of the UK’s working mothers have had their request for flexible working turned down or partly accepted by their employer, according to a 2021 survey by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and Mother Pukka.
The solution: A more robust flexible working policy; greater communication within teams; using internal networks and external parenting/caring support groups.

Fiona Beighton, international business centre director and gender convenor, Grant Thornton: “Many organisations see women drop away after maternity leave because they can’t manage their jobs without some degree of flexibility. At Grant Thornton, we have a ‘How We Work’ policy which allows people to decide where, when and how they want to work (subject to business needs). We also try to encourage people that if they are doing the school run to put it in the diary, so it’s visible to their colleagues.”

Hurst, PwC: Internal networks can be a great help for employees with parenting/caring duties. Our SPACE (Supporting Parents, Carers and Everyone Else) network is a great support community with sub-groups for adoptive parents, single parents and working dads. We also signpost to external organisations such as Tommy’s [pregnancy/baby loss charity] and My Family Care [benefits company which offers backup childcare/eldercare services].

The need for identifiable female role models

The problem: A lack of conspicuous role models within workplace cultures, meaning many women feel progress isn’t attainable. According to 2022 UK data from LinkedIn, 57% of women believe having a relatable role model is crucial to achieving career success.

The solution: Strong storytelling; enhanced mentoring.

Beighton, Grant Thornton: “At Grant Thornton, we don’t just use our intranet for reporting work wins and changes in policy, but also telling stories. At least twice a week we run stories about individuals and their lived experiences, such as dealing with paternity leave (do we intend to say paternity leave here or should it be maternity leave?) or coping with caring duties. It’s fascinating: even if employees know that person, they still find out something they didn’t know about them, such as challenges in their careers.”

Hurst: PwC: “We work with the 30% Club, a cross-company mentoring scheme which aims to boost female representation at board and C-suite level. It can really support female retention and progression.”

A lack of women in senior positions

The problem: Only 17% of women rise to the level of partner in accountancy firms, according to the FRC.

The solution: Sponsorship, mentoring and workshops.

Hurst, PwC: “We allocate a ‘sponsor’ (usually a senior business leader) to female talent who have potential to be future leaders. These sponsors can help with their portfolio and development.”

Beighton, Grant Thornton: “We prepare women for senior positions through our female-only programmes: Elevate (which helps managers become directors) and Breakthrough (which helps directors become partners). Both programmes have been designed to show female employees what being a partner/director is like, mainly through workshops such as ‘How to Build Your Brand’ and ‘How to Be More Confident’. It’s been hugely successful: 42% of the women who attended Breakthrough have been promoted.”

How to help returning mothers

The problem: Women who take an extended period away from work – whether it’s a year’s maternity leave or a five-year gap to raise children – face significant barriers, whether it’s confidence issues or returning to the workplace at a less senior level.

The solution: Better support and training/coaching; pairing returning mothers with ‘buddies’ within the workplace.

Beighton, Grant Thornton: “Taking time out can affect people’s confidence. For those people returning from family leave, we offer return-to-work mentoring, pairing them with a buddy who’s been through the same thing. We also offer return-to-work coaching for people who have lost confidence or are unsure what to do next, to help ease them back into work.”

Hurst, PwC: “To enable a smooth transition for those returning from family leave, we have toolkits and career coaches. We also provide access to coaching through Talking Talent, which provides sessions for mums and dads on leave.”

Support for women experiencing the menopause

The problem: The UK loses an estimated 14m workdays every year due to the menopause, while 900,000 women are said to have quit their jobs because of menopausal symptoms.

The solution: Provide access to medical support; train managerial staff about the menopause.

Beighton, Grant Thornton: “We train our people managers and issue them with guidance. Grant Thornton signs up for Doctor Care Anywhere, a GP support platform which specialises in the menopause and predominantly run by women. Many women experiencing the menopause just want a a quick answer about their symptoms; Doctor Care Anywhere is much easier for many people than visiting their GP.”

Hurst, PwC: “We have a Menopause Matters group: a community which shares information and support. We also offer access to an app called Peppy which covers menopause information, as well as health/fertility information. It’s also got a chat function which enables people to immediately connect with a medical expert.”

Apathy among male colleagues

The problem: Although many men support greater gender equality, many female workers feel this isn’t always reflected in their actions. One 2019 report by Promundo found that while 77% of men reported doing ‘everything they can’ to achieve gender fairness, only 41% of women agreed that they were. Meanwhile, 60% of women surveyed said it’s rare to see men speaking out against gender discrimination.

The solution: Male allyship programmes (see below).

Beighton, Grant Thornton: “At Grant Thornton, we’ve been running a ‘male allyship’ programme to help educate men on the importance and benefits of gender equality, which is mainly run via workshops.”

Final words

Hurst, PwC: “There’s not one single thing that’s going to fix this [problem of gender imbalance]. One thing that helps is having a data-led approach. You need to know what your organisation looks like and what the main issues are and to measure whether you’re really making progress. This data can identify the main issues, whether it’s promotion or lack of flexibility, so you can take the appropriate actions to resolve them.

Make sure that gender equality isn’t just about some good words in your annual report. You need to show what you’re doing as an organisation to be an inclusive employer on your social media and elsewhere, so that people can see what you’re doing [on inclusivity as a firm] day-in, day-out throughout the year. If you need to start somewhere, try focusing on a few key actions, sustain them and make sure staff are accountable for them.”

Christian Koch is an award-winning journalist/editor who has written for the Evening Standard, Sunday Times, Guardian, Telegraph, The Independent, Q, The Face and Metro. He's also written about business for Accounting Technician, 20 and Director, where he is contributing editor.

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