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
they will make it to the top. When I started in the profession in 1962 the firm had an able lady partner; when subsequently I became a partner in another firm I had a lady partner and so it continued in a big 4 firm for the following 25 years until I 'retired' to work on my own.
Am I alone in being tired of the constant gripes from those who demand 'equality'?
Is it realistic to expect someone who takes time out for family committments to achieve as much and as quickly as a fully committed male colleague?
At the end of the day, surely an accounting firm is a business established to make money for which the most suitably qualified and able people are vital. Sex has nothing to do with it!
Posted by: John Watkins, 10 Aug 2012 | 11:07
To be clear, I don't think any woman in the tax industry (or any other industry for that matter) is looking for "special treatment". We are not suggesting that we should be given a partnership for any other reason than that we are the best candidate for the job...
The sad fact is that few firms do fully commit to flexible working arrangements for any parent (not just mothers!) and so inevitably, a lot of women who are good enough to be a partner are overlooked in favour of a male counterpart. The fact that John seems to assume that only women take time out for family commitments and that only a male could be the fully commited colleague proves Fiona's point that these ideas seem to be ingrained in our office culture.
Who knows? Perhaps there are male senior managers out there who would prefer to spend more time with their family but don't for fear of losing out on a promotion.
The sooner we have flexible working arrangements for both mothers and fathers, the sooner we will see more of a balance in the boardroom. That is true equality.
Posted by: Heather Miller, 13 Aug 2012 | 17:39
I came upon this article whilst doing some research for an ongoing project. This is not restricted to Accountancy but other professions as well. In the course of our work coaching both those returning to work after a period of absence and the people in the team around and above them we still see a certain amount of short-sightedness. In a few cases it is wilful ignorance or at extremes gender prejudice...but most of the time it is just a lack of understanding or an inability to see the bigger picture. Taking the case of parents returning to the workplace, they tend to be very loyal, incredibly hard-working and extremely productive. With the changing landscape within the commercial world and an increasing number of female led boards and female entrepreneurs (again a lifestyle choice John) I can only imagine that most professional practices would be well advised to match their clients expectations rather than close ranks. I am in no way suggesting anything other than a meritocracy, but one where flexible and understanding working practices are the norm rather than the exception.
Posted by: Adam Hitchmough, 30 Nov 2012 | 16:32
Out of interest, does anyone think there is a marked difference between the gender divide in practice compared to in the public sector?
Posted by: Sarah Finney, 03 Dec 2012 | 13:02
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