Sector insights: Women in accounting
While the accounting profession has always been more equitable than many others in terms of gender demographics, this tends to taper off towards the top of the pyramid.
Statistics gathered from the 2020 Accountancy Age “Top 50+50” survey demonstrate this aptly. We found that, while at the time nearly half of all qualified accountants were female (45.47 percent), just one-fifth of senior roles within the sector was occupied by women.
More encouraging data comes from this year’s Accountancy Age “35 under 35” list, which features 22 men and 13 women – in theory, an indicator that many women in the profession are on the path to senior roles.
With this in mind, Accountancy Age sat down with some of the women among this year’s “35 under 35” winners to get their views on the state of play and the path ahead when it comes to gender equality in professional services.
Emily Baldwin, accounts and outsourcing manager, Kreston Reeves
The accountancy profession has always been very good at attracting a split of men and women at junior levels, but you do see that fade in more senior roles.
Balancing home and work is still very difficult for many women. It’s an issue that the profession is very aware of and has been working to address over many years. It’s also a wider societal issue and one that cannot be resolved overnight – but we are seeing changes.
The male-female split at partner level at Kreston Reeves is now 16 percent, and many of the board management functions – including our head of culture and values, our HR director and marketing director – are held by women.
How the company helps: In my experience, Kreston Reeves has been extremely good in ensuring opportunities are applied equally – [also through resources like] the future leader programme, whose participants are equally split between men and women. The aim of this programme is to provide the skills we all need to help our careers progress, and it does an excellent job.
The firm’s recent exercise around purpose has also been hugely beneficial. It was designed to help employees really think about what they want from their careers, and how that can be achieved alongside the goals of the business.
The firm has also looked to further support women in the business with enhanced maternity pay policy and menopause policies.
Key takeaway: As mentioned above, some of the issues faced by women are indeed societal and it’s important that we do everything we can as a profession to educate our [male] colleagues, who may not be faced with the same challenges.
But while the work-life balance element is aided by the uptick in remote and hybrid working, we must not get complacent. For example, the balancing act can lead to women working more unsocial hours, which is not always sustainable. It could also mean that women are excluded from decision-making processes due to a lack of office presence.
Overall, there is always more that the profession can do to level the playing field. Accountancy firms must recognise that everyone has very different personal needs and desires. They should listen to those individual voices and accommodate them to the greatest extent possible.
Ruth Brunskill, business consulting, Grant Thornton
On the whole, I would say the representation of women in accountancy and professional services is increasing. However, this varies hugely based on the service line and level of seniority.
For example, I’ve seen a disproportionate number of men in the transaction space. But in consulting, the overall split between men and women appears much more balanced.
However, the actual representation at more senior grades (director and partner level) is limited. There are numerous debates as to the driving forces behind this divide, but my general view is that it’s predominantly driven by the leadership and culture of a particular workplace.
How the company helps: Our CEO at Grant Thornton has set out a clear vision to create an inclusive environment. It’s too easy for firms to pay lip service to the cause without actually setting out tangible actions on how they’re going to do it.
For instance, we’ve pledged as a firm our commitment to the HM Treasury Women in Finance Charter, which includes having a dedicated member of our senior executive team responsible for gender diversity and inclusion, setting internal targets for gender diversity in our senior management, publishing progress annually against these targets, and linking senior executive pay directly to delivery against these internal targets.
I think the most prominent initiative we have at our firm, which I am part of, is a network of over 200 “inclusion allies”. The group is focused on deconstructing implicit bias and preconceived notions whilst at the same time making a commitment to continuously educate [itself] on issues and experiences that affect underrepresented groups.
Key takeaway: Moving forward, I think one of the key catalysts for change is for those within positions of power to be advocating for change, championing their underrepresented colleagues and constantly challenging prejudicial patterns of behaviour in the workplace. I’ve had some really inspiring male mentors in my career who have advocated for me when I haven’t had the confidence or platform to do so, and I am grateful for that – but this should be the norm.
Michelle Corazzo, tax director, haysmacintyre
My view is that female representation in accountancy and professional services has improved over time and that the profession has made great strides in trying to create a more diverse and equal-opportunities culture.
Firms in this sector have been transparent about their gender pay gaps, introduced diversity strategies, and made flexible working conditions a standard feature. However, more headway needs to be made to support and promote women to reach senior leadership roles.
How the company helps: [To this end], last year haysmacintyre set up a diversity and inclusion committee chaired by Anna Bennett, our head of operations and finance. The committee is made up of a group of volunteers across all grades and has worked on firm-wide training, data gathering and reporting as well as events and information.
Our latest gender pay gap report showed a mean pay gap of 4.2 percent and a median of 0.6 percent. We also voluntarily reported our partner gender pay gap for the first time, showing a mean gap of 3.7 percent. This has been really encouraging for younger women rising through the ranks of the firm.
Additionally, the firm has been proactive in reviewing and improving parental leave and agile working policies with the aim of ensuring they provide the flexibility required to support and recognise our diverse workforce. This includes policies to support and re-engage women after career breaks and maternity leave.
Key takeaway: Overall, there needs to be increased focus, transparency and importance assigned to diversity and equal opportunities in this sector. For women earmarked for leadership roles, I would like to see mentoring evolve into actual sponsorship.
We are now seeing a shift in what future generations are looking for in their next employer, and a firm’s values and corporate social responsibility initiatives are becoming an increasingly attractive element. Based on this, accounting firms should not only have this at the forefront of their agenda but also review their recruitment policies to ensure true diversity amongst their workforces.