A fresh perspective on women in accountancy

March 6, 2020

Liza RobbinsBy Liza Robbins.

Last month, Marie-Laure Delarue became EY’s first Global Vice Chair – Assurance.

Her appointment brought the share of women on EY’s most senior management body to over 37%.

The announcement was made with great fanfare, and the appointment was celebrated as great progress for women…

…But the truth is, it left me underwhelmed.

That this is still seen as a significant milestone in 2020 shows just how slowly our profession is developing, when it comes to women’s issues.

But was this perception widely shared? How do other women in the industry see the progress we’ve made, the challenges we face, and the steps we still need to take to support women in accountancy?

I set out to find out.

In honour of International Women’s Day, which we celebrate this Sunday, I spoke to three notable women on our Future Leaders programme to get their views. The discussion which ensued was, by turns, inspiring, challenging and thought-provoking!

There seemed to be across-the-board agreement that the industry is still male-dominated, particularly at the top, and that it is important to have more women in positions of influence – although they were not insistent on a 50/50 ratio.

However, there was a nuanced understanding of what caused the imbalance.

The women I spoke to did not blame discrimination or sexism, and (happily) felt that there were genuinely equal opportunities in their firm.

Instead, they said, some women simply did not want to reach “the top” professionally, because they wanted a good work / life balance which would leave them more time to spend with their families.

“I don’t think that gender stands in the way for us,” says Jennifer van den Berg, tax manager at Kreston VDN in Belgium. “There are lots of opportunities, but you have to grasp them and aim for them.”

Does this mean that there is nothing more for firms to do, to help women achieve in the workplace? No.

The women seemed to feel that, all too often, firms still discounted women who wanted an active family life. They want firms to redefine what is considered “normal” in this context, and do more to support women so they did not have to choose between work and family quite as often…

“When clients tell us they can’t make certain meeting times we switch things around for them. We need to practice what we preach, and treat our own staff the same way,” says Jo White, director of tax advisory at Kreston Reeves in the UK.

Everyone recognised that this process was already well underway – with flexible working cited as one of the most significant advances for women in recent years. But more needed to be done to make this an accepted option.

“It’s not enough to have an official policy if you get ‘that look’ when you leave the office early,” says Jo White. “We need to have more men using flexible working to normalise it. It shouldn’t matter when or where you work, as long as you get the job done.”

Of course they are right – flexible working benefits everyone, dads as well as mums, single people and anyone with family responsibilities – and should be regarded as a human issue rather than a gender issue.

Another factor sometimes holding back women is their own lack of self-confidence, says Juanita Cid, Salary Partner at Kreston Lentink Audit BV in the Netherlands.

“I frequently see men being more assertive – about their own needs and goals, standing up for themselves, and about offering up their own opinions in meetings.”

“Women often feel they need to prove themselves more, and sit in the shadows because they don’t feel confident enough to be bullish,” agrees Jo White. “The men, by contrast, just push through.”

Assertiveness, however, is a skill that can be learned, and the women were eager to see firms offering more “soft skills” training to all staff – “resilience and confidence, which you don’t learn in accountancy exams,” says Jo White.

One way to learn soft skills is through a mentoring programme. Interestingly, the women thought it was important not just to be assigned female mentors, but male mentors as well.

“Wherever they are in their career, they have done it in a different way. I’d like to understand more about what drives them and how they achieve day-to-day,” says Jo White.

Ultimately – and I suspect this is a generational thing – it was striking how resistant these successful women were to being pigeon-holed through the prism of gender.

“We need to stop thinking in boxes like this – that’s the problem!” says Jennifer van den Berg. “We can’t think that men do X, women do Y – it depends on the person.”

Like the others, she did not want to see initiatives in the workplace reserved for women only, since they could help everyone.

Most of all, they wanted women to stop being defined – and treated – as “other” or different.

“We need to change what’s perceived as normal,” says Juanita Cid. “Women can approach things one way, men another, and we need to value both and be more accepting of different ways of doing things.”

“I don’t like dwelling on the fact that there is a massive issue, like women are different,” agrees Jo White. “I go to women’s business awards, but sit there thinking, why do we need it? We should be celebrating women in the context of general success, not just because we’re women.

“In 10-15 years’ time, I don’t want to have these conversations any more, because hopefully there won’t be a massive discrepancy between men and women.”

I suspect this will happen, because while it was obvious to women of my generation that we were going to have to fight tooth-and-nail for opportunities, many younger women simply take it for granted that they are equal. They have grown up in a different world!

In other words, may the day soon come when International Women’s Day is redundant…

…And in the meanwhile, here’s to the wonderful women in Kreston – and to their success.