Salary survey: Discrimination is the issue

If you had been led to believe that the world of accountancy was dominated by the white, male, middle-aged standard, there’s good reason to believe you weren’t far wrong.

Diversity has got to be one of the hottest HR buzzwords around, with the vast majority of companies stressing the importance and business value of employing a workforce that reflects the increasingly varied nature of the clients and consumers they serve.

Yet the spring 2004 Accountancy Age/Robert Half Finance & Accounting salary survey has found that discrimination in its many ugly forms, continues to dog the industry. The figures speak for themselves – almost a third of the 2,953 respondents to the survey say that they have experienced discrimination in the workplace, including a staggering 43% of female respondents.

It’s an issue affecting everyone – from finance directors and accountancy practice partners, to credit controllers and those working in audit. Only those working in payroll suggest that discrimination is less of an issue for them – with just 21% saying they have been discriminated against, significantly less than the industry average.

The findings are all the more surprising given that the vast majority of respondents – 65% – believe their organisation has an equality and/or diversity policy in place, leading to suggestions that many companies are simply paying lip service to the diversity ideal. At the other end of the scale, one in five respondents say that they do not know if such policies exist within their organisation.

Despite the fact that age discrimination in employment is set to become unlawful in the UK by the end of 2006, companies have some way to go before creating truly level playing fields for all employees regardless of age.

Of those who experience discrimination in the workplace, one in four say it was on the grounds of age. One in three male respondents and, interestingly, the same proportion of finance directors, also flag ageism as a problem.

But age discrimination is by no means limited to the more mature.

Younger employees – those under 25 – together with their colleagues in the 56-plus category feel they are more likely to suffer at the hands of ageism than the other age groups questioned.

But as concerns about the ageing population continue and the government investigates the idea of either abolishing mandatory retirement or introducing a default retirement age of 70, addressing the age issue is something that companies can no longer afford to ignore.

Steve Carter, managing director of Robert Half Finance & Accounting himself a qualified accountant, says a problem is that companies and managers are continuing to recruit in their own image. ‘Firms aren’t implementing the right parameters in the way they recruit.’

He also feels legislation is long overdue. ‘We are still a number of years away from saying we have truly knocked over the ageism issue. Recruiting on merit is a commercially savvy way to operate.’

Discrimination on the grounds of gender continues to be an extremely serious issue. Half of female respondents affected by workplace discrimination say it was on the grounds of gender. Somewhat surprisingly, 10% of their male counterparts feel gender discrimination has affected them.

‘I’m ashamed and sad to say that the glass ceiling for women in accountancy still prevails,’ says RHI’s Carter. ‘We have to get rid of it and I’m confident that we are making headway. Companies are very conscious of their public image and they tend to be quite vigilant at the recruitment stage. But more and more women are choosing accountancy as a profession so over time that has to change.’

Other forms of discrimination, notably prejudice on the grounds of race, religion and sexual orientation, were also highlighted. Almost one in 10 respondents say they have experienced workplace race discrimination, although given the low representation of graduates from ethnic minorities in the industry, there is a good chance that this figure conceals a far more sinister reality.

Publication of the survey results is timely, coinciding with the launch only last week of a campaign by the Big Four firms to attract more graduates from ethnic minorities.

Diana Worman, a diversity adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), says that, regardless of whether the results were based on a misguided perception or a harsh reality, the results showed how rife discrimination is.

‘If people feel they are being discriminated against it has the same impact on their behaviour. Having policies is only part of the building blocks. It doesn’t make the culture unless you get people to engage with the issue,’ Worman says.

‘You can’t expect to solve the problem overnight. And you certainly can’t tinker around with things and go for exclusive, one-off initiatives. You need to design something that’s much more coherent. We need to encourage personal responsibility – to get people thinking they can and should do something about it, and celebrate when there’s a win.’

Carter, meanwhile, is quietly confident that the message is getting through.

‘The ambitious young accountant sees it as a merit based profession – either naively or not. The balance of power is changing but not quickly enough.’

We’ve had the pink pound, the brown pound and the grey pound. The pound is diverse and the sooner firms realise that the better.

Related reading