Women in Accountancy – the changes, challenges and future
If you take a quick glance around the average First Intuition classroom, you’ll probably notice two things. Firstly, a room full of students all intently listening to one of our passionate tutors as they talk through complex accountancy topics. Secondly, you might also notice that around half the people in the room will be women. We’re very proud that in these times, often marked by controversy towards the lack of equal status for women, that our classrooms, with a strong representation of female students, are truly equal. This is not just in terms of student numbers but also in the success we see in their careers, progression through the qualifications and of course in exam results. This is replicated across the awarding bodies with women now accounting for 50% of registered students.
An increasing number of women are registering as students and our own centres have a virtually equal split in the male to female ratio within classrooms. So, why is it that women struggle to make it to the upper echelons of our industry? Research conducted by the FRC found the following:
- 46% of women reached the rank of a manager within the accountancy profession.
- Yet only 17% rise to the level of partner.
- However, in smaller firms (those with less than 200 employees), the proportion of women holding partner roles is just 11%.
- The gender pay gap that exists within the accountancy profession sits at 21.5% (the national average is 18.4%).
Factors that may affect a woman’s progression to senior roles.
In order to explore this in more detail, we looked at research that exists about our industry and women’s progression within it. However, we also held our own webinar to discuss the real-life experiences of women in accounting. We invited a panel of female guests to join us for this special edition of our student webinar and podcast. The discussion centred around what it’s like to be a woman working in accountancy and the challenges our panel have faced. We were delighted to be joined by:
- Laragh Jeanroy – Partner RSM
- Christina Christoforou – Business Owner CMNC Associates
- Jill Wright – Director Kirk Newsholme
- Ellie Bullman – Finance Manager Wisbech Grammar School
- Beatrice Scarano – Assistant Accountant BHP
- Rebecca Taylor – Chelmsford Apprentice CBHC
You can listen to the recording using the link below:
One of the key factors that many experts agree hampers women’s progression to more senior roles is that statistically, women are more likely to have an additional role of carer, outside of the workplace. For many women, this is often because they have responsibilities for their own children. However, increasingly many women are now also becoming a key carer for elderly parents.
Many women returning to work after maternity leave find that their career landscape has altered. A 2019 survey by Bristol and Essex university found that only 27.8% of women were in a full-time or self-employed role in the three years after childbirth. The survey also found that in the five years after childbirth, women were two thirds less likely to be promoted. Many employers have had to adapt their HR policies to provide greater flexibility for women returning to work after starting a family and for those with other caring responsibilities. However, the loss of full-time work experience, for many women can hamper their opportunity for progression.
Conversely, a survey conducted by ‘Working Dads and Working Mums’ found that many fathers are not able to share the responsibility for childcare. Many find their requests for flexible working are often declined. The onus on women to adopt the main share of childcare can be seen quite clearly when you consider that 70% of those who have been furloughed during the Covid-19 pandemic are working mothers.
During our webinar, we discussed this issue in detail. Our panel felt on the whole that the workplace has changed in recent years. Greater flexibility is generally more widely available. It was noted that the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted that it is possible to work outside of the standard 9 to 5 and still be an effective leader or team member.
A report in 2018 by PWC, which is based on a survey that questioned over 3000 women, highlighted the culture within workplaces as a key factor to the progression of women to more senior roles. Women questioned by the survey identified a lack of identifiable role models within an organisation as a particular problem. This meant that many of their questions about whether they could progress to a more senior level lay unanswered. There were no women carrying out these roles whilst juggling childcare or working flexibly, for example. During our recent webinar, our panel discussed this in detail. They felt that there is still a perception that in order to succeed, a woman needs to be tough and develop a hard exterior. They advocated the need for women who don’t fit this mould to be seen in more senior positions.
Inconsistency in policy across companies was also identified as a problem for women trying to progress in their careers. The PWC report cited a survey by ‘The Working Mother’ that demonstrates this. Of the 100 companies covered, policies varied widely. Some offer generous parental leave whilst having few programmes in place for career development. Mentorship may be offered at some companies who at the same time offer no flexibility in working arrangements.
The report also highlighted that HR has a key role to play in embedding equality into the mindset of an organisation’s line managers. Stereotypes still exist and assumptions are often made about what women can achieve given their circumstances. Developing a culture and framework for progression that’s based on ability and performance is key rather than assuming barriers that may not exist. For example, assuming that a woman may not be able to attend important evening events due to family commitments may be flawed as she has support at home. At our recent webinar, our panel agreed that having a supportive line manager is a vital ingredient to a woman being successful in the workplace. Those managers with families of their own are seen as being the most understanding.
Culture is also key when you consider that 39% of the women surveyed would only put themselves forward for a promotion if they believed they met all of the required job criteria. Only 17% would put themselves forward if they met some but not all of these criteria. It is, therefore, really important that talent is recognised, nurtured and plans are in place to support this.
A woman’s network is vital to her success. The PWC report identified that women need both informal and formal mentors of both sexes to support them as they progress in their careers. This includes a supportive line manager but also informal advocates and advisors to discuss and share experiences with. Equally important, is a woman’s external network, particularly if she has caring responsibilities outside of the workplace. Our panel of qualified and trainee accountants endorsed this point wholeheartedly. Those with support from parents or family said that this had been invaluable to them. They also noted that companies need to recognise those women that don’t have external support and work with them to provide the flexibility or working arrangements they need.
How have things changed for women in accountancy?
Some of the guests from our recent webinar have worked in the accountancy profession for over twenty years. We asked them to reflect on the changes they have seen during this time. All of the qualified accountants for our panel talked about joining businesses that were filled with men in grey suits at the start of the careers. However, all agreed that this is no longer the case. Our panel highlighted that despite this they still see few women in the most senior positions. The younger members of the panel also talked about how they feel that they have to prove themselves more than some of their male counterparts. They acknowledged that there is still a struggle to be taken seriously. However, on a positive note, they felt that there weren’t any barriers to their progression.
As the field of accountancy has changed and is becoming less reliant on technical skills, our panel felt that this played to a woman’s strengths. The ability to juggle tasks, being an effective communicator and being empathetic have become important skills within the workplace. However, our panel all agreed that the more emotional nature of women is often treated as a negative within an organisation. Many felt that within their working role, they’d had to play down these characteristics.
One of the key points that emerged concerned the return of women to the workplace. Our panel argued that taking time out to care for young children should not be seen as a negative. Employers could do more to encourage qualified women back to the workplace and support them in their steps to return.
Women at First Intuition
As an organisation, we have a strong representation of women at all levels. In particular, we are really proud of the number of women we have in senior leadership positions. Across the whole of First Intuition, we have over 25 women who hold the position of Director or Partner. Our Yorkshire centres are led by Lucy Parr, as Managing Director and in Chelmsford, Kelley O’Donovan is both an owner and Director. At our London and Reading centres, both Managing Directors are women. There is also scope for progression as many of or team who lead or manage teams are also female.
Meanwhile, a great number of our staff both male and female work part-time and flexibly. This allows members of our team to take on caring responsibilities outside of their work. Many of these staff members hold management positions enabling them to progress their careers whilst balancing other external commitments. A culture of development exists with staff able to access regular opportunities to develop their skill set and explore new areas within their existing or wider job role.
We are equally proud of our work with local schools and colleges. We promote accountancy careers and encourage all young people, regardless of their sex, to find out more about the opportunities in our industry. Our ever-popular Accountancy Academy is attended equally by young male and female students aged 16-18. We recognise that there is more that can be done and we aim to continue to challenge, raise awareness and provide fair opportunities to all in terms of recruitment and progression.
The future of women in accountancy – what can we do?
Like many businesses we are looking to see what else we can do to address the balance. In the coming months, our team will be looking at opportunities to encourage women into accountancy. We’ll work more closely with schools to encourage not just young women but people from all backgrounds to consider accountancy. Our mission is to help anyone who might be interested in our industry to explore their options. We will be investigating ways to provide the support needed to do this. We hope to achieve this by widening the work we already carry out with local schools and colleges.
Our panel of qualified and trainee accountants had some firm ideas about how women themselves can address the balance. They talked about women needing to be more confident. They encouraged young women to define their own path rather than allowing events to happen to them. They also challenged the need to have it all. Women should be able to shape and flex their careers around their external commitments. They shouldn’t feel like they have to return to the workplace to maintain progression. However, there should be plans in place to accommodate them if and when they wish to return.
You can listen to the full debate using the link below: