Top 50: failing to be diverse

rachel fielding, accountancy age

‘Diversity is more than just a corporate buzzword. It is the life-blood of a
dynamic, vibrant organisation. The accountancy profession needs to keep on
attracting and retaining the best talent if it is to deliver on its commitment
to quality. Without a truly diverse workforce, it will not be able to do this.’

When Ashley Steel, a member of the UK board at KPMG, wrote these words for a
piece in Accountancy Age just a few weeks back, even she was unlikely
to have realised just how much of an issue the lack of diversity across the
profession continues to be. As the only openly gay board member of Big Four
firm, Steel speaks with some authority on the issue.

Our survey didn’t attempt to unearth details of the sexual orientation of
staff, but a glance at the proportions of female partners and those from ethnic
minorities highlights just how little has changed in the last 12 months. More
worryingly, perhaps, huge strides remain to be taken for the profession to
describe itself as anything but ‘pale, male and stale.’

Across this year’s Top 50 firms, the average percentage of female partners
stands at a very disappointing 9.7%. Despite significant noises across the
profession about a desire to increase the proportion of women at the most senior
levels, the situation remains depressingly familiar. In fact, the figure remains
virtually unchanged from 2006 when 9% of partners across the UK’s 50 biggest
firms were women.

Four of the Top 50 have no female partners. The average across the 10 largest
firms gives slightly more cause for optimism at 11.8%, but the improvement is
negligible, bearing in mind the huge sums invested in diversity campaigns,
particularly across the Big Four. Mercer and Hole, ranked 43, tops the female p
artner league with almost a quarter of its partners women.

A glance further down the food chain does little to reassure that change is
imminent. We asked firms what proportion of their qualified staff were female ­
that figure reached just over a third (35%). The figure is disappointing, not
least because on average more women than men enter the profession, but also as
it marks a fall of two percentage points on last year.

Morley and Scott’s Linda Richardson, the only female managing partner in our
sample, says the lack of diversity across the profession is a non issue. ‘It’s
about partner experience and skills. A lot of the time women choose not to go
for more senior roles. It’s about attitude.’

A surprisingly large number of firms (almost 60%) declined to supply us with
details of their ethnic makeup. Of those that did, the results paint a mixed
picture. A total of 5.9% of partners stem from ethnic minorities.

Despite being marginally down on 2006 figures, average growth rates are well
into double figures. But unless the diversity rhetoric is turned into action and
hard facts and figures, the profession could struggle to attract the talented
staff it needs to bring home the bacon.

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