When Margaret Thatcher became prime minister in 1979, many hoped it would make it easier for women to rise to the top of their professions.
But nearly 25 years later, most of the country’s top jobs are still occupied by men. This gender gap is particularly evident in the accountancy profession, where the numbers of female FDs falls well short of the figure for men.
It means that the few female FDs at the top could soon find themselves famous not for their abilities, but because they are female.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that many of our leading women professionals shy away from the great gender debate, anxious not to be seen exploiting the ‘gender card’. ‘Famous’ female FDs in the UK include Helen Weir of Kingfisher, Judy Boynton of Royal Dutch/Shell, Rosemary Thorne of Bradford & Bingley and Alison Reed of Marks & Spencer.
While they have shown it is possible for women to make it to the top, a few big hitters stamping their mark is hardly cause for the Equal Opportunities Commission to celebrate, especially when you consider there have been fewer than five female FDs in the FTSE100 for some time.
A recent study from the Ethical Investment Research Service showed that around 6% of directors in UK companies are women – fewer than Germany, France, Denmark and Sweden. The situation is more worrying in the FTSE100, where the number of female FDs in the UK is even less.
So why are there so few female FDs? The latest research from Accountancy Age and Robert Half Finance and Accounting revealed that it’s not just at the top where gender is a burning issue. Women were twice as likely to be in the lowest income bracket of the profession, earning less than £25,000 a year.
The pay bias towards men in the accountancy profession is huge.
Men were almost twice as likely as women to earn more than £50,000 a year and five times more likely to earn more than £70,000 a year.
Our survey also revealed that male FDs earn an average of 20% more than female FDs.
It is possible that some areas of the business world are more welcoming to women than others. Annie Guerard, the French-born UK FD of the Diesel fashion group was surprised at the results of our salary findings.
‘In fashion, accountancy is quite open to women, I would say. Looking around me there is quite a balance between men and women,’ said Guerard.
She feels that women are, in fact, very well suited to the accountancy profession. While cautious of making generalisations, she says women in the workplace tend to be quite accurate and well organised. ‘It’s very much in line with the requirements of accountancy, such as precision,’ says Guerard.
The number of female partners within top accountancy firms is almost as low. Our research showed that women make up just 10% of partners, while some big firms admitted to having no female partners at all.
While the figures tell their own story, social factors come into play.
Guerard says she couldn’t imagine doing her job if she had children.
‘When you’re an FD, there is no flexi-time. If you’re in a position of seniority, you may have to work 60 or 70 hours a week. If you have to deal with a merger it has to be done. To build a family, there is more flexibility around the men. It’s a biological effect,’ says Guerard.
But should family and social commitments outside work have to prematurely shorten the careers of aspiring female FDs? After the caring nineties, there must be some men that like doing their bit around the house.
The Ethical Investment Research Service study found that Britain was not the worst place in Europe for promoting women up the ranks. Spain, Italy and Portugal had the fewest number of women on their boards. There were as few as 1.5% female directors in Portuguese companies.
This part of the study’s findings would not surprise Guerard.
‘All the southern European countries are changing, but will be more traditional about the role of women and the family. In England, people still continue to work after one, two or three children. We are very close to the American way of thinking, so if you have the right temperament you can go to the top,’ says Guerard.
However, the fact that the other northern European countries are ahead of the UK by having more female directors suggests there may be more than just culture involved.
Norway, for example, far outstrips the UK by having more female directors, with women making up more than 18% of executive and non-executive directors.
Our own research has pointed to the prevalence of a ‘glass ceiling’ in accountancy at the financial controller level. The 47% of the profession that perceive a glass ceiling at that level may well be put off from working for upper-level promotion if they believe their endeavours will not be rewarded as much as their male counterparts.
Accountancy Age research revealed ambivalence towards the problem at the FD level, where the vast majority of respondents would be men. Some 89% of partners and 82% of FD’s responded that they did not feel there was a culture hindering promotion opportunities for women in the company.
This was far higher than any other category or respondent. For credit controllers for example, the proportion was 55%.
It’s not true to say that accountancy is currently attracting vastly more men than women. Deloitte, for example, says about 55% of applicants are male. Sandra Burling, partner at Deloitte, who sits on the Deloitte board, says: ‘There’s more women than men coming to us, but I don’t think that factor explains the big difference between the number of women who are partners versus the number of men.’
Our own research has suggested that women do find certain sectors more attractive than men. Women favoured the charity and voluntary sector more than men and were twice as likely to name the public sector as their ideal career choice.
By way of consolation, our research suggested that, once in the profession, women do not get treated any worse than men in their daily working lives.
In fact, the women surveyed were on balance more satisfied with accountancy than their male counterparts.
However, Julie Mellor, chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission, believes women could be even more satisfied if employers were more flexible.
Some of the best women end up retiring early because of a lack of flexibility from their employers.
‘We need a more flexible approach, otherwise companies are using the skills of only half of the workforce. In other parts of Europe, employers have more flexibility and do not have such long working hours as the UK. You have to think consciously about how to provide flexibility. It depends on the kind of job,’ said Mellor.
She thinks the use of home working could be a solution, but also advocates shorter working weeks and flexible hours depending on the type of job.
Guerard says: ‘Sexism is in people’s minds. All the great chefs are men, apart from Delia Smith, and I don’t think she’s a very good cook.’
But if women really are more accurate and organised than men, and do make better accountants, then it may be the male-dominated companies themselves that are the real losers in the gender stakes.
FEMININE WILL POWER
It has been a very good year for a lucky handful of female executives climbing up the UK career ladder, writes James Hester.
Royal Dutch/Shell group promoted FD Judy Boynton to the main executive board, making her the first woman to reach that level in the company’s history.
Boynton first became FD in June 2001 and prior to that spent 20 years with US-based Oil group Amoco.
But the latest remuneration reports have revealed that Helen Weir, FD of Kingfisher, is the best-paid woman in the FTSE100. She has become the only known female director of a top UK company to earn more than £1m, with a £1.2m pay package.
The accounts revealed that she enjoyed £31,600 in maternity pay during the birth of her third child, proving that child birth doesn’t have to halt a successful career as an FD.
Elsewhere, Marks & Spencer has established a track record for promoting women to the top jobs. FD Alison Reed sits alongside non-executive director Barbara Cassani, chief executive of its financial services business Laurel Powers-Freeling, and former head of MI5 Dame Stella Rimington, who is also a non-exec.
Reed who is divorced with no children, joined M&S in 1984 and got her first break as executive assistant to the chairman in 1990. She was appointed group financial controller in 1996 and became UK retail finance director just three years later.
Earlier this year, a survey naming Europe’s most successful female executives found seven out of the top 10 came from UK companies. American born Judy Boynton was number eight, while the top spot went to Rose Marie Bravo, chief executive at Burberry Group, also from the US.
It was another American-born executive, Marjorie Scardino, who took the second position in the league table, as chief executive of Pearson.
Helped along by a spectacular 300% rebound in her company’s share price, Martha Lane Fox, one of the founders of internet-based travel group Lastminute.com, managed to take the number six slot.
In the world of media, Jeanette Wilkins was appointed to FD of the British Film Institute in the summer. Wilkins takes to the helm of an organisation that last year had an income approaching £30m.
In an interview with Accountancy Age, she described her earlier work in auditing at Ernst & Young as ‘cheap labour’.
‘A woman anything in a male-dominated world is always going to be a problem,’ says Wilkins.
Wilkins really found her groove at the Granada Group where she blossomed in its media division to become finance director.
She believes her time there has prepared her for the task at the BFI, which she describes as a ‘great organisation focused on the bottom line’.
She says having a female boss in the form of BFI director Amanda Neville makes her job much easier.
‘These differences are really highlighted in a work organisation where there are pressures and stresses. Sometimes it’s difficult to know where the opposite sex is coming from,’ adds Wilkins.