The number of women in accountancy has increased dramatically. On a global level, there is almost numerical equality between men and women, and it has been predicted that women will soon outnumber men in the profession.
This balance is particularly evident in Asia Pacific and emerging economies. Power and influence, however, remain unbalanced, with men still being disproportionally represented in the most senior positions.
It is positive that there is an increasing number of female students, entry-level candidates and middle managers, as this will provide a pool of candidates for senior roles. But there clearly remain obstacles to the appointment of women for the most senior positions.
Alongside an accountancy career, a woman might be juggling a role as a ‘sandwich’ carer, looking after children and elderly parents
The ongoing challenges for women working in accountancy practices are well documented. They range from overcoming practical considerations to battling embedded cultures.
Practical considerations typically relate to the fact that women are more likely to have primary care responsibilities. Alongside an accountancy career, a woman might be juggling a parallel role as a carer, or a ‘sandwich’ carer, looking after children and elderly parents at the same time.
A person with such care responsibilities would typically struggle to operate in an inflexible, fixed- or long-hour, office-based environment, which has traditionally been the default of the accountancy profession.
Culture continues to be the greatest challenge for women in practice and in business. In many cultures, younger women in the accountancy profession report lower levels of direct, overt sexism than was typical 20 years ago. It is positive that the norms of acceptable behaviour have developed to reduce, albeit not eliminate, sex discrimination.
However, lower-level or subtle sexism remains a real challenge – for example, the assumption that a person with primary care responsibilities could not juggle the additional responsibilities that promotion brings, or that if a person takes a break from work to have a family, they are no longer a serious contender for senior roles.
Women are making progress in managing these challenges, but it would be unfair to suggest that employers and the whole profession are not also taking steps. Each year we read how well females are performing in exams. This is a credit to the ability and hard work of women, and impossible for employers to ignore.
The demands on accountants are also changing. Accountancy roles are rarely purely technical and now require enhanced skills of listening, empathy, communication and multitasking, which women are often suited to. The combination of academic excellence and enhanced interpersonal skills make women a strong proposition in the recruitment and promotion process.
During the pandemic, many organisations were forced to introduce flexible working arrangements and employees demonstrated that they can perform to a high standard under these conditions. As many businesses return to some element of office-based working, flexible arrangements are likely to continue, which will help women to manage a career and primary care responsibilities. At the same time, employers are also becoming more proactive and implementing policies that attract and retain women.
Progress for women feels supersonic compared to diversity in terms of race, disability, sexual orientation and social background
Seeing women in senior positions in the workplace is the most important indicator to others that they are in an environment in which they can succeed. These women can act as both role models and mentors.
Much is being done to expose gender pay gaps, but it is also important to actively manage the representation of women’s voices in meetings, events and decision-making processes.
Some way to go
The challenges for women in the accountancy profession are just micro-representations of a much wider discussion about diversity in the profession. While the advances that have been achieved for women feel slow, the progress has been supersonic compared to improvements in diversity in terms of race, disability, sexual orientation and social background.
The number of people taking up accountancy is declining. Young people are increasingly attracted to careers that did not even exist 20 years ago, especially those related to technology. The accountancy profession must compete for talent like never before.
We need to communicate better and show why a career in accountancy can be so rewarding. The positive outcome of this war on talent is that it should improve the diversity of the profession as commercial pressures encourage an agnostic approach towards talent.