Following the April gender pay gap reports and our women in finance ranking, Accountancy Age ran a webinar about being a woman in the accounting and finance sector in 2018.
We talked about accessibility for women, the importance of leadership and management in creating a culture of inclusion, and how the accountancy industry can spearhead progression and change. Are diversity targets and quotas helpful, what initiatives should organisations consider introducing to support women in work, and what initiatives are currently in place that should be rolled out to the wider industry?
The webinar panel included Maggie Stilwell, managing partner for talent at EY, Catherine Hall, partner and London head of tax at Mazars, and Alicia Crisp, partner at MHA MacIntyre Hudson.
Women in the workplace
Gender pay gap reporting revealed that more men are in senior roles than women in the accountancy sector. The Accountancy Age salary survey 2018 found a pay gap of 21.5% overall in the accounting profession.
As a result of the recent pay gap legislation, businesses are getting on board with working towards creating equal opportunities for everyone.
Stilwell explained that EY have been thinking about this issue for a long time. As well as a gender pay gap they have an ethnicity pay gap, and if they could measure disability and LGBT reliably they would have that too.
“This is an issue about inclusion, and about how majority and minority groups work together in the culture.
“Our pay gap definitely reflects that there are more men higher up but also gender stereotyping at different levels of the organisations. For instance, our secretary roles are more female-dominated and our markets and finance roles more male-dominated. So there’s definitely more than one problem to fix.”
Stilwell highlighted that the firm still aren’t attracting enough women at graduate level. Then, in terms of progress, it is pretty equal until manager or senior manager level.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it coincides with a phase in men and women’s lives when they might be starting a family and their priorities may start to shift, and this might affect your ambition levels. Unfortunately at the moment women still seem to play a more dominant role, which is why at EY we’ve been pushing our shared parental leave and flexible working policies to try and make that a more gender neutral experience.”
A lack of senior female stakeholders is also problematic because young women coming into the industry don’t know what their future or leadership looks like.
“Until I had 2 strong female role models to work with I didn’t realise how much I had missed. If you don’t have a female role model, go and find one, either in your organisation or elsewhere. There are plenty of mentoring organisations now, not least the ICAEW and the 30% club.”
Hall also pointed to the female role models she has had as integral to her career success.
“You don’t have to mirror and echo what other people do, but you can learn from them. Take the positive and negative and find your own style. You can only really grow into something that you can see.”
Crisp had a lack of female influence at the start of her career, but said that the men she worked with also acted as her role models.
“The fact there was an absence of women never really crossed my mind. It’s only when I became more senior that I started to interact with other women, which I think is quite different to the experiences of the other panellists. What changed for me was taking part in The Institute’s leadership and practice, which is training that enabled me to start networking with other partners across the firm and building mentors.”
Research backs up the fact that diversity is economically beneficial as well as important to the wellbeing of our population.
Stilwell cited stats from EY that show those who invest in Diversity and Inclusion have a 57% better team collaboration and are 19% more likely to retain their employees. They are also 70% more likely to have success in new markets.
What challenges might women in accountancy face in 2018?
For Hall, there is still an unconscious bias associated with flexible working, which is problematic since flexible and remote working is one way that women might be able to carry on in their career trajectory where they wouldn’t otherwise.
“The whole working world is become more flexible and more agile but there is still that feeling flexible working is a barrier to demonstrating what you need to demonstrate in order to progress.”
When asked whether there is still a glass ceiling, Crisp said: “I feel like I haven’t felt it where I’ve trained but I suspect I’ve been quite lucky and that perhaps makes me a bit naïve. It’s not as straightforward as ‘women can’t get to senior positions’, there are social pressures that have already been touched on, some stereotyping in terms of roles, and pressures that women will put on themselves too.
“It’s lots of different things put together. I think the reality is that we’re not yet in the position that women can accelerate into the same roles at the same pace as their male colleagues around them for a whole host of reasons.”
Stilwell looks on the positive side when it comes to the glass ceiling.
“I don’t think the glass ceiling is empowering to any of us, to the extent that if you feel that about your organisation, then go somewhere else. There are other organisations that will welcome you with open arms and you will be in a culture where those issues don’t exist so I’m keen that we ask ourselves the right empowering questions and really, in this day and age just don’t put up with anything that we feel our talents might not be getting the recognition and return that they justly deserve.”
When asked about individual experiences of being a female accountant, Hall said it’s been a varied journey for her.
“I’ve learned things from strong female role models that I’ve worked with and some strong male role models but I’ve also had opportunities to step back and review what I want out of my career. I try and make sure that I do that every now and again – to refocus on the direction I’m going in – and that encourages me to push in the direction I want to push, challenge myself on taking on things that not taking me in the right direction but also have those conversations with those above me and those below me.”
Stilwell reflects on 26 years in the profession: “I’ve certainly had a mixture of experiences!
“When I think about the way the profession is going and the way in which it is going to be disrupted, I think there has never been a better time to be a woman in the profession and in finance, and if we think about some gender stereotype qualities that women bring that are highly prized in today’s environment: empathy, communication, looking after teams, establishing really trusted relationships with clients. These are the things I feel I have been able to demonstrate in my career, and which EY has valued and recognised, and helped me get on to the roles that I’ve had.”
Crisp said: “My experiences have always been really positive, I have always been able to have open and frank conversations with partners, but I do think this point about confidence and about putting yourself forward is important. I don’t think it’s fair to say that all men are super confident and therefore will find it easier, we need to acknowledge it’s difficult for both men and women sometimes but the issue of there being fewer role models for women does make it harder to see perhaps where you’re going to get to or how you’re going to do it.”
The concept of a work-life balance features heavily in discussions about progression and success in the work place.
Crisp suggests that you shouldn’t have a set pattern when it comes to a work-life balance – sometimes she does have to work at a weekend, but equally it’s important to take time out.
“For me that’s doing something completely different from my day job. Being outside, walking, hiking. Anything that helps me refresh and re-energise for the next week.”
Stilwell agrees that the phrase ‘work-life balance’ is not particularly useful.
“I think its artificial and unhelpful and potentially a bit binary. It creates an idea that one is better than the other. But for all that I’ve started making more of a commitment to myself in recent years.”
Stilwell enjoys yoga classes and she tries to work from home one day a week so she can do the school run. She also says getting more sleep can be very healing.
“These things don’t necessarily give me a balance, but they let me focus on what’s important in my week. And if you get any of that wrong you can get stressed on a longer-term basis.”
Similarly for Hall, work-life balance cannot be measured on a weekly basis.
“It very much depends, it changes depending on my own needs and those of my team and clients, and those of my family. I’m fortunate to have 3 small children which means I switch off at weekends because they demand my children. During the week getting outside is helpful.”
Leadership and management
For Stilwell, change in workplace equality is a top down issue.
“I am heavily influenced by the fact our chairman and managing partner Steve Varley really gets this and he has been behind this consistently in his role since moving into it, and now he’s in his seventh year. It’s meant we have had business targets around this for the last seven years that sit alongside our financial targets and create real pain if people are not delivering across the balanced scorecard which includes the D& I measures.”
Crisp agreed that workplace culture is influenced heavily by leadership teams.
“They need to be setting the tone that it’s perfectly possible that women can make the same progress as men and I think the culture around the office and the tone does have to come from the top.”
Likewise, Hall said that senior partner Phil Verity’s sponsorship of change is really making a difference at Mazars.
However, she added that there is also a lot to learn from the bottom up too.
“Change needs to come from leadership, but having mechanisms to input from across the firm is also really valuable.”
Sponsorship and mentorship
Stilwell said it’s important to consider the difference between sponsorship and mentorship. EY realised a few years ago that informal sponsorship in the business seemed to be favouring white males more than BME and female employees, especially at manager level. As a result they implemented a sponsorship program where a partner pairs with a manager and the partner must get the manager promoted within two years. It’s been very successful and led to lots more promotions.
While she has never had a formal mentor, Stilwell said: “Mentors are incredibly helpful to understand the subtler things that you need to know, the doors that need to open, or the people that can help you in a particular situation.”
Hall explained that Mazars have a number of valuable mentorship programs. She has had many mentors and continues to have them, even if they aren’t formal.
“They aren’t necessarily more senior, it’s just about having access to talk to people and knowing who to go to when you have certain challenges or want to discuss certain issues. Personally I find my peers and partners invaluable for that, there’s four of us in the firm that made progress at the same time and we are really honest with each other, we’re a good sounding board and that’s hugely valuable. I want to be that person for other people. I would like to think the teams would feel they can come to me and talk to me in an informal or formal capacity as a sponsor or mentor.”
Progression and change
In terms of diversity targets and quotas, Crisp said they are helpful in that they put the issue of equality on the agenda, despite causing some resistance because people believe they quash the opportunity to hire the best people.
“It’s about making sure that people understand they still can recruit the best people but they can have a wider pool of people to choose from in the first place which gives them even better opportunities.”
For Stilwell, targets are essential otherwise business does not get done and areas without targets become simply a ‘nice to have’. Like any other area, D&I should definitely have targets.
To fuel this, Hall said return to work schemes for women are really important.
“There’s a massive pool of talent out there that we need to find a way of bringing them back into the workforce.”
It’s important to bring people in on the same level as everyone else and avoid any unconscious bias just because they have joined through a specific scheme.
Despite businesses introducing many positive initiatives, and a universal recognition of gender equality through the pay gap legilsation, the results of our audience poll show there is still a way to go, with 55.6% of the audience saying they do not think women have access to the same opportunities as men, 25.9% saying they do, and 18.5% saying they do not know.
However, Stilwell looks optimistically to the future of women in accounting and finance.
“If we look at this poll it says we’re not where we need to be today but I’m an optimistic person. I always think it’s going to get better and I think gender pay gap legislation is going to make it better but it’s not going to happen overnight. Just don’t put up with a place where you feel you’re not going to get on because of your gender.”