Top 50: Your perfect partners

Link: Special feature: Accountancy Age Top 50

A year’s a long time in politics – but is this true of accountancy?

The last 12 months have heralded some significant changes on the accountancy landscape, according to the results of the latest Accountancy Age Top 50 league table, which offers a fascinating snapshot of the profession.

Amid dwindling growth in audit, the resurgence of consultancy, and personal finance revenues struggling to fulfill over-optimistic predictions , 2004 has marked some major shifts in focus and success. But in other respects, notably female representation at partner level among the UK’s biggest accounting practices, it’s very much business as usual.

Last year, Accountancy Age bemoaned the striking gender imbalance across the most senior echelons of the profession. Back then, our first-ever analysis of the county’s 50 biggest firms by gender found that on average more than 90% of partners in those firms were male.

The shocking revelation provoked an outcry from the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), and warnings that unless firms took the issue seriously and made proactive moves to recruit and retain more female talent, they would continue to miss out on a valuable resource.

One year on, and virtually nothing has changed – if anything the situation is slightly worse. Of those Top 50 firms that volunteered a gender breakdown, the proportion of female partners reached a pitiful 8%. This is despite the fact that the gender split among professional staff in Top 50 firms averages at around 50:50.

One in 10 of our Top 50 firms reported no female partners on the payroll, and only one – Armstrong Watson – broke the 20% mark, with a very encouraging 23.5%, slightly down from the one in four proportion the firm reported in last year’s survey.

Tackling the gender issue, it would appear, is a very hard nut to crack.

But credit where credit’s due; the absence of a gender revolution in accountancy is not without significant efforts on the part of firms.

But gender is just the tip of the iceberg. Today’s mantra is corporate diversity, which stresses the importance and business value of a workforce that reflects the increasingly varied nature of the clients they serve.

Indeed diversity has become one of the hottest business topics around, as an expanding swathe of companies – particularly accountancy firms – embrace the need to distance themselves from the perception and, let’s face it, the reality, of an industry dominated by the white, middle-class male.

Prompted by the results of our salary survey published in April this year, which painted a picture of an industry dogged by discrimination, this year’s Top 50 survey includes a breakdown of partners from ethnic minorities – with some depressingly predictable results.

The fact that around one in four firms chose not to reveal a breakdown of partners from ethnic minorities could be construed as telling in itself.

But of those firms that did, the average 4% figure disguises a more dramatic, if not troubling reality. Almost one third of firms that responded admitted that none of their partners were from ethnic minorities.

In fairness, many firms have made big strides in facing up to the issue, if not successfully tackling it. Back in April, the Big Four firms joined forces to launch a campaign to attract more graduates from ethnic minorities into the profession.

And just last week, KPMG issued a press release highlighting the appointment of Sarah Bond as the firm’s new head of diversity. She joins the firm from Business in the Community’s Opportunity Now, a business-led campaign that works with UK employers to realise the full potential of women at all levels and in all sectors of the workforce.

‘Diversity is about creating an environment in which difference is valued. KPMG has already made real advances in this; my role now is to consolidate the work that has been done and develop the firm’s strategy across all aspects of diversity,’ Bond commented on the announcement of her appointment.

It’s debatable whether a 1% increase in female partners to 12% within the firm could truly be defined as a ‘real advance’. Despite moves by all of the big firms to sing from the rooftops about their commitment to diversity as an important business issue, the fact of the matter is they’re still failing to get the balance right.

The findings are all the more surprising given the high proportion of companies that claim to have a diversity policy in place – 86% of the Top 50 firms, according to this year’s survey. Quite understandably, this has led to suggestions that too many are simply paying lip service to diversity, certainly at senior appointment level.

Only two firms – Johnston Carmichael and Bishop Fleming – said they did not and 10% of the UK’s biggest firms declined to make public whether or not equality policies were in existence within their organisation.

The EOC’s warning of the need to take diversity seriously is all the more pertinent as signs of an economic rebound continue. Interestingly, 80% of Top 50 firms said they expect to increase their headcount of professional staff over the coming year and more than half of Top 50 firms – 54% – said they planned to increase partner numbers in 2004, compared with 34% who said an increase was not on the horizon. Six of the 50 refused to comment.

Competing for talent has always been high on the list of firms’ priorities. But this rebound in confidence means that being the employer of choice has never been more important.

Potential employees of both sexes are voting with their feet, and increasingly it’s a firm’s attitude to diversity, work/life balance and the so-called softer issues that have risen to the top of candidates’ wish lists.

Firms are fishing from a precious pool of available talent. Only those that demonstrate that they are tackling diversity head on with demonstrable results – in terms of gender, ethnic minorities and age to mention but three – stand to gain.

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