Women in the profession – still not enough at the top

I JOINED THE PROFESSION 25 years ago as a trainee in a Big Four firm and, after marrying shortly afterwards, was aware of the assumption that I would simply qualify and then leave to have a family.

I was struck by how few female role models there were at partner level and this coloured my view of the opportunities that existed in the firm. Looking back, the progress of women in the profession has certainly improved but has been disappointingly slow.

According to the 2012 Accountancy Age Top 50+50 Survey:

• There are just two female managing partners in the Top 50 firms.
• In most firms, fewer than 15% of the partners are female. Only three of the Top 50 firms have more than 25% female partners and no firms achieve parity (or even come close).
• Five firms, perhaps with good reason, choose not to disclose their partner gender split.
• In the next 50 firms, the figures are marginally better, with three female managing partners and one firm achieving partner parity.

For many years, there has been gender parity at the graduate entry level. Female trainees perform just as well overall as their male counterparts and so, at the point of qualification, the gender split is approximately equal. But then the differences emerge. At manager level, the picture is varied with women being better represented in some service lines, such as tax. The big gender differences, however, are evident in our profession at partner and board level.

In my experience, various factors account for this:
1. Alternatives: I have seen many bright and talented women choose to leave the profession and take roles in industry. For many, the choice partly reflects a desire to leave behind the culture of long working hours.
2. Lack of female role models: senior women with families are thin on the ground, especially at partner and board level.
3. Bias: this exists either as conscious or unconscious bias among senior management teams. Unconscious bias is, sadly, all too often passed on to the next generation of partners from their predecessors.
4. Lack of sufficiently flexible working arrangements: while there has been significant progress (particularly amongst the Big Four and small practices), many have plenty of ground to make up.

I have recently been involved with initiatives in industry to address the aims set out in the Davies Report, namely getting more women onto boards. Progress has been made but it is unlikely the relatively soft targets of the Davies Report will be achieved in the short to medium term – that all FTSE 100 boards be populated by at least 25% female members.

I think that perhaps quotas are needed, at least temporarily, to counter unconscious bias.

My advice to younger women coming into the profession or to those considering a move within the profession is: take time to research the culture of the firm and the team you are joining, find a firm with some successful senior female partners, invest time in your professional network – internally and externally, and find a senior sponsor within the organisation to ease your transition into a new role.

Our profession now has a number of inspiring female partners and enlightened senior partners who recognise the value of a diverse workforce. It is up to us to work hard to recognise, support and sponsor the progression of the brightest females in our firms.

Fiona Hotston Moore becomes partner at Reeves from 1 September

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