Gender equality is an urgent issue for the Government

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We need your input to address barriers women face in finance.

You may have seen that the Treasury Select Committee (TSC) recently announced an inquiry to examine the barriers faced by women in financial services, and the progress made in removing gender pay gaps. In order to develop the conversation and gather views, the TSC has launched a call for evidence, with a deadline for submissions set for 1 September.

Although it has risen up the corporate agenda in recent years, gender discrimination remains a stubbornly difficult issue to address. The reasons for that are many and will vary among different organisations, but whatever stage the journey to equality has reached, there can be no excuse for ignoring it.

This is an issue that we at AAT have tackled head-on, so it’s worth examining what a joined-up and concerted effort can achieve. For the past few years, AAT has made tackling gender inequality one of our key corporate aims. It began back in 2016 when we became the first accounting body to sign up to HM Treasury’s Women in Finance Charter, which committed us to “Supporting the progression of women into senior roles by focusing on the executive pipeline and the mid-tier level, as well as carrying a number of other pledges to promote gender diversity.” We achieved our Women in Finance target of having 40% women in senior management roles at AAT during 2022 and have committed to a new five-year target to have at least 45% by March 2027.

Making progress

We were also an early advocate for publishing gender pay gap data, and have done so since 2017. The most recent figures revealed that AAT’s mean gender pay gap decreased from 3.5% in 2021 to -0.2% in 2022, indicating a mean gender pay gap slightly in favour of women. As a result of these and other efforts, in 2019 we were nominated in the Employer of the Year category at the 2019 Women in Finance Awards.

Taking such an active approach to this is important for two main reasons: first, of course, it helps to make us a fair employer that promotes, develops and rewards the best people regardless of their gender.

But second, it’s especially important because as a profession, accountancy has been in the vanguard of addressing gender inequality in recent years, and we want that to continue. At AAT we have designed both our working practices and training requirements to reflect the realities – and challenges – facing women in the workplace. We want to support the rest of the profession through transparency, innovation and effective strategies.

Amongst the six UN Sustainable Development Goals AAT is committed to is Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. This commitment is underpinned by the gender split across our member population which currently sees 62% of our members as female.

Leading the way

This is an issue that should concern all in the profession. Certainly, balancing out gender inequities by creating a beacon for women in accountancy was a driving force behind Rachel Harris’s decision to set up her accountancy practice Strivex.

“I trained at a Top 75 practice where there were no female leaders, so this is a topic that I’ve spoken about a lot,” she says. “And I would definitely say that as a sector, finance is ahead of the game a bit, thanks to the 50-50 split of those qualifying.”

“However, that ratio doesn’t continue through to management. And so, in terms of accountants studying and qualifying it’s very even, but further up the chain, women seeing their careers slowing down because they’ve had children, or not being welcomed back after maternity leave is a bigger issue. So that 50-50 split becomes irrelevant when that isn’t reflected in decision making, or in opportunities for women to come back to work after children.”

Given that, Rachel is encouraged by the decision to begin the consultation. “I would want to know particularly about peoples’ experiences where conversations have occurred where family planning has been explicitly referenced. For example, I remember pitching for a promotion from finance manager to Director of Finance, and I being asked in the interview, ‘Are you planning to have children in the next five years?’

“So, I think getting a deep dive into what’s happening in those conversations will be really helpful, and that’s where anonymity will be important.”

Work to do

We should be encouraged that lots of progress has been made, at AAT and beyond. But clearly there is more to do. The finance sector in general still faces significant hurdles to creating a truly inclusive and equitable career path. And accountancy isn’t immune: recent research by Instant Offices identified a significant drop in the number of women who set up their own accountancy businesses in 2022 compared to 2021.

 And that’s why we are asking you, our members, to make your voice heard and help us push the equity agenda forward. We understand this is a sensitive area, and there will be disagreement over what constitutes discrimination, but unless we open up the conversation and gather real-life experiences then it’ll be harder to affect real change.

Providing evidence

Primary source data from those on the front line is enormously important to this effort, and we are keen to provide anonymised testimonies from those in the profession, from a point of view of both positive and negative experiences. Please contact Jack Withrington to share your stories of gender discrimination, as well as positive testimonies of opportunities and support you have received in the industry – we will not include any identifiable details in any information we pass on.

Adam Harper is AAT's Director of Professional Standards & Policy..

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