Breaking the glass

Women accountants are finding it increasingly difficult to combiner equality is still to be won. Kathy Greene met her. their careers with having families, according to Women In Accountancy, the organisation which was set up by the six professional accounting bodies.

Anne Jenkins, the current president of the organisation, says women need to know that ‘having it all’ is difficult but not impossible. Jenkins combines her role as president with her job as director of Accountancy Tuition Centre and is the mother of two children, Victoria, 4, and William, 2.

Jenkins is determined to use her presidency to ensure that senior decision-makers within the profession take women’s issues seriously.

One of few women to be elected to the English ICA’s council, Jenkins was also one of the youngest elected members and recalled turning up on council when she was nine months pregnant with her daughter. ‘Nobody gave the impression I shouldn’t be there, but the number of women on council is almost the same today as it was then in 1994. There are only nine.’

Jenkins qualified as a chartered accountant with the Stockport office of Neville Russell after reading modern history and economics at Manchester University. ‘The qualification was a turning point. I took a quantum leap from modern history to business because although I preferred the history side of the degree, people said you could either be a teacher or a researcher with a history degree. So I decided to get into real business,’ she says.

A move to more flexible roles

After qualifying with Neville Russell, Jenkins moved south and joined Peat Marwick’s London office. ‘As soon as I joined the firm I expressed an interest in the training department, but the firm didn’t have the resources for it. I’ve always wanted to do training and I knew I wanted to combine having a family with my career so I decided to work freelance, which meant I could enjoy more flexible hours,’ she says.

‘It takes a lot of shifting to change your work patterns but after getting married I had to ask myself how I was going to combine having children with a career. Looking at the long hours, I realised it wasn’t going to work, and something would have to give.

‘Now I can see my children and make their tea, as I work from home. Women can now work when they have the time. Advances in technology make it possible for women to pursue a career at home via e-mail, fax and telephones and still raise families.’

WIA was set up by English ICA council member Susan Gompels in 1992 to provide a focal point for issues concerning women. Gompels found that women in all the professional bodies had similar problems, reaching the so-called glass ceiling. ‘She discovered that women were getting to a certain stage in their careers and then not getting any further,’ says Jenkins. ‘Although various reasons were given for that, they didn’t buy them.’

Independent research by Isabel Boyer in 1995 showed that for the proportion of women qualifying in the profession and staying in the system, only a minority advanced to senior positions as finance directors and partners.

‘The “Balance on Trial” study indicated there was a problem,’ says Jenkins. ‘There is no active discrimination in the sector but it exists. WIA was set up to look at the reasons why.’

Institutes question WIA role

But the effectiveness of the role of WIA is being questioned within the profession. CIPFA and ACCA are contemplating withdrawing from the organisation, accusing it of not serving a particularly useful function.

‘We’re not really in line with radical action, we’re more in line with gentle persuasion through workshops and practical ideas,’ says Jenkins.

‘Things are changing and WIA has made a difference to the lives of women accountants and to turning attention to the policies in the workplace. Taking to the soapbox just would not work.

‘We prefer to work calmly, logically and professionally.’

Jenkins advises women to develop their careers by building on their strengths.

‘We need to focus our minds. One of the issues we hit on almost accidentally was that no-one was helping women develop their careers. There is some very subtle messaging going on and there are hardly any role models for women.

‘The lack of confidence this causes is astonishing. Women need to learn to trust their own judgement and be aware of what they need to do, like networking and making contacts.’

Jenkins will remain on the board of WIA after her term as president and said the main aim of the organisation is its own abolition. ‘We’re working towards our own extinction, when the problems women have in the profession no longer exist,’ she says.

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