Accounting industry must take “proactive” approach towards gender equality

Senior figures claim that a number of new diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) initiatives are helping the accounting industry improve gender equality.

According to Sharon Spice, global marketing, brand and belonging director at the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW), the industry is being “very proactive” in closing the gap.

“Many of our member firms are making changes to their policies and are offering support to women to help them progress in their career,” she said, pointing to some recent examples.

“Deloitte has brought in family-friendly policies to support those with caring responsibilities, PwC has set up mentoring programmes to provide access to role models and support women in their skills development, and KMPG has set gender targets for senior positions to counteract gender stereotypes and bias.”

Spice also mentioned that the ICAEW, and many of their member firms have signed up to the Women in Finance Charter. In addition, they are also chairing Chartered Accountants Worldwide’s Equality Diversity and Inclusion Taskforce, which focuses on gender equality in the profession by understanding barriers to progression and taking steps to remove them.

Room for improvement

Findings from the report Top 50 + 50 Accountancy Age report revealed that despite firms leadership remaining predominately male, the percentage dropped from 87 percent to 76 percent in 2020 and that almost half of the people who work in the sector identified as female.

“At more junior levels, we are approaching gender balance and our intake numbers for female students have been increasing over the past decade. However, we know there’s a widening gap at senior levels as women do not always progress into senior positions at the same pace or leave the profession altogether,” said Spice.

However, Natalie Hannan, early talent manager at Moore Kingston Smith, believes the struggle for women is still present at entry levels as well as senior positions.

She also noted that caring responsibilities are another key reason the industry has kept women from progressing to higher positions.

“In the past a lot of conversations around progression and skill happened after work, in a more social environment which perhaps was harder for some women to be able to partake in because they had other responsibilities, family responsibilities,” Hannan said.

“Whereas people who don’t have as many responsibilities get their work done and socialise, they then have these conversations, build relationships, build their network with clients perhaps in a different way, and that probably had a bit of impact.”

Hannan believes that hybrid working will really help with this, creating a better environment for work-life balance with more robust development conversations taking place during work hours.

Levelling the playing field

In a bid to making hiring practices fairer Moore Kingston Smith has adopted a new hiring platform called Applied, which allows companies to hire candidates anonymously.

Khyati Sundaram, CEO of Applied, believes that hiring processes are riddled with biases that disadvantage women, starting with the gendered language used in job advertisements. Their research has shown how masculine coded words such as “driven” and “individual”, often associated with senior positions, can deter female applicants by as much as 10 percent.

“We’ve seen how the right solutions can level the playing field for female, and indeed all candidates.”

Anonymous applications and structured interviews which assess candidates for role-relevant skills, can increase female hires by as much as 300 percent, according to Sundaram. And, if cleaned of human bias and carefully implemented, AI can be used to strip job adverts of gendered language, increasing the number of female applicants by up to 54 percent.

After embracing de-biased hiring processes Moore Kingston Smith has seen female hires increase by 74 percent.

According to ICAEW’s Spice, there are a number of other reasons which might contribute to women progressing more slowly or exit the profession entirely, such as dealing with gender stereotypes and bias, difficulties accessing female role models, working hours that do not allow for caring responsibilities, as well as difficulties accessing resources and training.

Spice also mentioned the impacts caused by significant life events such as menopause, and its related increased risk of medical concerns, or fertility issues, which often coincide with prime-time career progression during the 30s and 40s.

“ICAEW further provides several resources on career progression and health for women,” Spice said.

Among their initiatives, they run a Women in Leadership programme with a strong personal development focus that supports female members in senior management, partner or board roles.

“Our Women in Finance Community was set up to provide networking and personal development opportunities to enable women working in finance to achieve their full potential.”

Targeting gender equality

Jackie Henry, managing partner – people and purpose at Deloitte (UK), believes another way to help end the gap is by setting targets.

“We believe that targets are vital in terms of driving change and fostering a sense of accountability.”

Targets should be stretching but realistic, and progress against them closely monitored and reported, according to Henry.

“We have a target of 40 percent female partners by 2030,” she says. “Since setting our target, and introducing our gender balance action plan, female representation at partner level has increased from 14 percent in 2014 to 25 percent today.”

Other initiatives from Deloitte’s gender balance action plan include return to work support; sponsorship, mentoring and development opportunities; a range of support for working parents; and active monitoring of the talent pipeline.

Henry also pointed out that thanks to their return to work support scheme more women are returning to work after maternity leave – 91 percent during 2021 compared with 68 percent in 2012.

Exit mobile version