Ask accountants what they think about the vexed issue of how womenone benefits, writes Liz Loxton. fare in the profession, and you will elicit a varied response. As far as many are concerned, if one or two very visible women can make it to senior levels, then clearly there isn’t a problem.
Even cursory analysis of the top tiers of management, however, suggests that barriers still remain. As Women in Accountancy president Anne Jenkins explains, it’s obvious women are not proportionally represented at middle and upper levels.
‘If women are accepted at entry level, why then do things go wrong later?
We found that there was a lot of frustration in that women feel they can contribute, but the culture they find themselves in isn’t flexible enough,’ she says.
WiA’s practical work includes publications on career planning and effective self-marketing, which the group has publicised through regional workshops.
It emerged through these workshops that what individuals needed most practical help with was taking career breaks to have children.
‘It isn’t an issue that has really been tackled elsewhere. What happens is that often women are just cut adrift.
‘And it is a management issue. Women can solve this question of how to combine having children and continuing with their career by bargaining with employers.’
Quite a few women, reports Jenkins, will ask their bosses if they can return to work parttime. When they are refused, they will often seek out part-time work elsewhere, only to find that they are then urged to stay on revised terms.
This shows that career breaks can be negotiated, but the strategy depends on women taking the lead. Jenkins advocates approaching the boss with a business plan. ‘Women have carved out more flexible working arrangements when they have negotiated them personally. At the moment they tend to go with the problem not the solution. They’re approaching bosses who are accountants, not human resources people, who might not have managed job sharers or part-time employees before,’ she says.
‘If you go in with a business plan which says “You’ll be paying me less, you can save costs here, I can train others to take over some tasks and still do the most important things myself”, you’re likely to be better received.’
WiA’s latest publication, ‘Working Together’, is aimed at employers and employees. The idea is to give advice on how career breaks, job sharing or part-time working can be structured to best effect. ‘I think that we need to work a little bit more with employers. We need to get the ideas across to people at a senior level.’
Generating and publicising this kind of strategy is clearly the group’s raison d’etre. But, for some women in the profession, experience of depending on male bosses for promotion leads them to think that to further their careers they will have to do what they have always done: be determined, work hard and be prepared to leave to get a promotion.
‘I wonder whether the 35-year-old male partner is going to be prepared to accept that the 25-year-old junior will, in ten years, be as good as him,’ says Jackie Stephenson, insolvency partner at Neville Russell.
Out of 97 partners in Neville Russell, only six of whom are women. Two of them, however, run the firm’s Oxford practice. Katharine Moss, 32, has a general audit and accounting background. Julie Henshawe, 33, is the firm’s tax specialist. She began her accounting career at the Inland Revenue and worked at KPMG and Grant Thornton before joining NR in Oxford as a partner.
‘I have been in firms where women are not thought highly of, or where they are not getting through to higher levels because of how the management views women. The partners have to believe that women can be partners.
It’s not a question of being better than men; it’s a question of being better than other accountants,’ says Henshawe.
Some firms have woken up to the need to retain female staff. Melanie McLaren is a director in the business assurance unit at Coopers & Lybrand. She joined as a graduate recruit 13 years ago and her career with Coopers has included spells in audit, litigation support as well as a six-month secondment to the Post Office where she worked as director of financial strategy.
She puts her advancement through the ranks down to the fact that Coopers allows considerable freedom for individuals to develop. ‘Firms like Coopers are more flexible now than before,’ she says.
Coopers offers part-time working as an option and there are financial benefits for childcare: women returning to work get childcare vouchers amounting to a certain percentage of their salary for the first year – a big incentive to come back. McLaren says that male as well as female colleagues have taken advantage of flexible working packages, allowing employees and partners to occasionally work from home.
In McLaren’s view, progress for women in the profession comes down to enlightened self-interest on the part of individual firms and not the work of lobbyists or groups like WiA. ‘Firms like ours have woken up to the fact that employees are its most important resource,’ she says. As regards the glass ceiling just below the hallowed ranks of senior management, there is still some way to go. But barriers are not what they used to be. ‘I don’t perceive that there is as much discrimination now.’
There has been progress, albeit limited, towards adopting more flexible working practices. Does the profession still need women’s groups? Whether it is WiA, Women in Management or the City Women’s Network, there is often a concern that joining these groups sends out the wrong signals.
The fact that they are solely aimed at women can militate against them.
So what are these groups for? Is their aim to help women network and win business referrals or are they support groups?’
WiA suffered a financial setback last month when CIPFA revealed that it was withdrawing funding from the group.
Colin Douglas, CIPFA press officer, was quick to stress that this did not mean the institute had withdrawn its goodwill towards the group – just that it was finding it hard to justify continued financial backing.
‘The funding for WiA was most needed at the outset,’ he said. ‘While CIPFA is in support of the work of the group, it was felt that the initial reasons for funding had passed.’
Continued support from ACCA is also under a question mark. Chief executive Anthea Rose declined to comment on the work of WiA beyond saying that ACCA would be reviewing its financial support for the group in the same way that it would review any financial backing of this kind. In cash-pressed times, CIPFA, along with any other professional body, is bound to look at how much it can afford to spend backing groups like WiA and even perhaps to question their value for money. So what benefits does WiA give?
The group was formed by the institutes in 1992, initially as a forum for swopping ideas on how women could overcome some of the barriers they encountered as they tried to advance their careers. Since then the group’s activities have grown. WiA sets out its stall firmly as a support and information service. WiA does not organise networking sessions, but it supports the idea.
‘There are groups who set up events for networking – WiA groups at a local level, for example, and the ICA’s Workplace 2000, and we do encourage networking through our career development programme,’ says Jenkins.
There is a genuine need for women in business to network locally. Henshawe says: ‘It is more difficult to meet other women in business. Out of London, local networking groups for women are not as good as they should be.’
Business networks for women have proved very positive. Stephenson says that in her sector women network informally and refer business to each other. The City Women’s Network also provides useful events that give the chance for women to pick up business because it is not confined to one sector of financial services.
Women in Banking and Finance – a networking group which has grown considerably recently and is strongly supported by the clearing banks – provides training sessions and networking events. It has a wide membership, which is not solely female. It also has a young dynamic executive, and offers a full calendar of events.
Toni Pincott, forensic services partner with Grant Thornton, says that she and female colleagues have benefited from attending networking groups.
In many cases, what you get out of a networking group depends on how active it is and how much you are prepared to put in yourself.
‘To get the benefits you’ve got to attend, so you need an entity that is very active. If the group only has four events a year, you can bet that they will be on nights when you can’t attend,’ Pincott points out.
Where WiA is likely to win out is by promoting flexible working practices for women and men. ‘In a broader context, championing flexible working is about championing it for everyone’s benefit,’ explains Jenkins.
‘Career breaks can also be for travel, or for sporting interests, for instance. We think we’re working for the profession as a whole and not just women.’
HOW CLIENT ATTITUDES CAN CHANGE
Women partners and managers report varied reactions from clients. Neville Russell tax specialist Julie Henshawe says: ‘You don’t tend to get instant respect, you do have to earn it. Lawyers and doctors tend to be surprised to see female managing partners.
‘Within the firm you don’t face prejudice at all. You do get the odd client where you think you’re going to have to wheel out a man with grey hair.
But sometimes clients surprise you.’ Toni Pincott, forensic services partner at Grant Thornton, says clients’ more traditional expectations can work to her advantage. ‘I’ve never been conscious of any prejudice from my firm or from clients. Clients often expect a man. In my area of work – litigation support, expert witness work – traditionally roles would have been filled by an older man. They will have built up industry experience and it is work they can do because of their grey hairs or baldness.
‘Being a younger woman in this area has been an interesting challenge.
People, once exposed to you, trust you in spite of your age and gender.
It can be good if you’re different; maybe it’s the novelty, but I’d hope not.’
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