When it comes to gender equality in accounting, the stats at an early stage are encouraging: 49% of accounting students worldwide are female.
But something happens at the other end of the career spectrum, where the number of women in mid and senior-level leadership positions is very low. FRC research suggests just 15% of partners in medium-sized and Big Four firms are women.
The female value
The benefits of more women in leadership – and more diversity in the workforce generally – are clear, says Karen Campbell-Williams, tax partner at Grant Thornton: “Out in the world you are dealing with a diverse population and therefore having a diverse leadership within your organisation makes you much more relevant to your customers and your clients.”
To address the poor figures for women in leadership, a major shift in attitude is required. “That has to start at the top,” says Elaine Clark, managing director of CheapAccounting.co.uk, who launched the Women In Accountancy website earlier this year. “Organisational culture is set by those in charge. A gender-balanced culture will positively impact the business and lead to improved retention of talent as well as enhanced talent recruitment.”
Not a tick box exercise
To sustain this culture shift, promoting women into leadership roles cannot be seen as “token or a box-ticking exercise”, says Campbell-Williams. Getting more women into leadership positions will provide more role models, which is essential to overcome the attrition between entry into the profession and senior roles.
“When I started my career in the 90s, there were no female partners, possibly even managers, in my first firm. There was a salary differential back then and I was told that I wasn’t allowed to wear trousers,” explains Rachael Verinder, tax partner at Milsted Langdon, which also has an all-female corporate finance team.
“Times have changed and now, as you go on, the more female role models there are the more it encourages people to come through and realise it’s achievable.”
Employers must address the issues
But, as the figures suggest, there are issues that employers must address at an earlier stage to help women progress to such senior positions in the first place. A recent study, for example, suggests it takes women seven years longer than men to reach executive level in finance and accountancy.
Coaching – both for women at a senior level and for those at earlier stages in their career – can help employer and employee really understand what women today want when it comes to promotions and leadership, says Campbell-Williams.
“Partnering with someone externally enables them to reflect on their experiences and the conditions in their organisation and wider system, with a clear focus on developing themselves, their relationships, and performance as authentic leaders,” adds Victoria McLean, career expert and CEO of CityCV.co.uk.
To address the poor figures for women in leadership, a major shift in attitude is required
For employers, building “a pipeline that feeds diversity” in the workplace is crucial too, says Campbell-Williams. This can include looking at how job descriptions are worded and how recruitment is done, and implementing diversity and inclusion training. Firms of all sizes need to think about how society has changed and reflect this in their policies, from more family-friendly practices to modernising staff and client events so they appeal to all genders.
“I do think women face different challenges especially with continuing their career after a break. In the past, fewer women returned to work or if they did they made real sacrifices,” says Rowena Barnwell, director of client services at inniAccounts. “Society has moved on for the better and I would encourage any startup or small business to think differently about how they employ women – or people more generally – and how they keep in touch with them while they are off to raise a family or take a sabbatical.”
Being flexible around the burden of care
The burden of care – for both children and other family members – has historically fallen on women and balancing the demands of family life with work is still a huge factor in women’s progression in finance. “It is women who have to have the babies and there can be a perception that you won’t go back to work afterwards,” says Verinder.
Establishing sound flexible and remote working policies can help and bring wider benefits for employers, and all employees.
“Flexibility widens the recruitment pool and attracts top talent. It makes employees and firms more productive and happier places to work,” explains McLean.
“Empowering employees to take ownership of their working patterns to both suit their work commitment as well as family duties would surely bring a better result for the employer and employee. Not only that but what a highly positive marketing message this would be to relay to clients and prospects,” adds Clark.
Creating flexibility in accountancy
Grant Thornton has introduced family-friendly policies such as, an enhanced version of shared parental leave and coaching for those transitioning back to work after long-term leave. It’s also pledged to increase its percentage of female partners from 16% to 22% by 2020 and 25% by 2022, and to externally recruit 20% more female senior managers and directors by 2020.
At Milsted Langdon, flexitime was brought in a year ago and technology systems have been upgraded to support remote working. “There’s been some resistance in accountancy [to flexible working] because we have to think about the needs of the clients,” explains Verinder.
“We have to try and make sure there’s always cover and that they have contact. Because we charge by the hour there’s a challenge to make sure that this is recorded correctly and that clients aren’t getting overcharged because of flexitime. We’ve put structured guidelines in place to ensure flexitime is shared fairly and works for our colleagues as well as our clients.”
Those firms taking action show the sector is committed to progress. Karen McLellan, managing director of Haines Watts, agrees: “Each gender has stereotypical characteristics which leads society to believe that some jobs are better for men and some better for women. However, I do not believe that accountancy is one of those professions. It is a profession based on intelligence, communication and relationships – all things in which women and men are equal.”
Laura Oliver is a Freelance Journalist and Former Head of Social and Community at the Guardian.