On the eve of Accountex, a storm broke on Twitter as people argued over two six-person all-white-male panel sessions featured on the seminar programme at the event.
So, why did some people think this was a problem? In this article, I’d like to outline why this is a problem for our industry if we want greater diversity in our leadership.
Before I go any further in this article, I’d like to state the following:
- This is not a personal attack on any of the 10 men who made up the two panels. They have earned their place to speak at Accountex.
- The organisers at Accountex have produced the most diverse set of speakers this year. There are many more female and representatives from ethnic minorities this year than I have ever seen before. To put it into context: out of 250 seminar sessions across the two days, there were only two which featured all white male panels. This has taken hard work, and I really applaud the organisers for their role in helping to create a more diverse profession.
What’s the problem with these panels?
Across the profession, it’s painfully obvious that creating a more diverse leadership population in accountancy is much needed. This is not about a gender agenda, nor an anti-white-male crusade, or pushing the message that females are better than men. It's about getting more diversity of thought at the top level of our profession.
The statistics about the diversity of the accountancy profession’s leadership population make concerning reading. In the UK, there is virtually a 50/50 split for accounting students. However, we leak females from the profession at every stage of their career, culminating in only 18% of all partners in the top 100 accountancy firms being female.
There is a slightly different story with the ethnic minority statistics. The ICAEW reports that 20% of their students are BAME (compared to 15% of the overall population in the UK). However, the top 10 firms in the UK list 25% of their professional staff as BAME, but only 6% of their partners.
So, what is stopping more females from getting to the top of the profession? The Accenture 2017 study "getting to equal: motherhood and ambition" has shown that career ambition doesn't go away when women have children. Yes, of course, access to flexible working and high-quality childcare which doesn't cost the earth is always going to be an issue. However, for the purposes of this article, I want to talk about the importance of role models and accepted norms.
The importance of role models to increase diversity in the accountancy profession
At a very simple level, the more role models you have of women and BAME in positions of influence and leadership within the sector, the more women and BAME will see that this is a place they can get to.
This is one of the problems with having two all-white panels of six men at the largest trade show in the UK for accountants. It sends a subliminal message to a large proportion of the profession that their views are not important.
As a female working in a profession heavily dominated by men, the subliminal messages about "this isn't a place for you" have been there all my working life.
From my university student trip to the site of the new Batheaston bypass and the smallest site safety boots being four sizes too big for me, through to working as the second-in-command in a massive ambient distribution centre and the only site fluorescent coat small enough, came down past my knees (at least the laughs at me lifted the moral of the warehouse pickers).
The problem is, the more we accept the status quo the more complicit we are personally in reinforcing the current diversity issue we have in accountancy. After all, isn't it time we stopped being part of this construct? And start to rewrite the norms of how we do business? Gary Turner in his short internal presentation on International Women’s Day in 2018, probably said it much more eloquently than most.
The arguments in favour of all-male panels
These are the arguments which get trotted out time and time again when the all-male panel debate surfaces.
1. These are the best people to be on the panel and the most qualified
Firstly, there are very few occasions where the best people to be on the panel are only white males. Unless you are in a very specific academic or technical discipline, this is almost never the case. And definitely not the case when debating subjective topics such as the future of accountancy – the theme of one of the panels under discussion on social media.
2. We tried... but the females we asked all said no
I am very aware of many suitably qualified females, other than myself, who have very strong views about the future of the accounting profession.
Given that I don't know how many females they asked, it would be wrong of me to conclude at this point that they didn't try hard enough.
However, part of the problem is that if you only look at the same or usual talent pools, you are only going to find the same people. Finding new people is more difficult, and more risky, but it doesn't mean you shouldn't try.
There is often a reason why females are saying no to being on the panel. And these need to be looked into. If we can't provide a platform where females are prepared to speak, there is a problem.
For example, Accountex acknowledged it had a problem with the lack of female speakers in its seminar programme in 2018 and kick-started a series of initiatives to radically increase the number of females in particular on the 2019 programme. These included a very fair and transparent speaker selection process, plus offering training to women to feel confident and able to speak at the 2019 event.
3. Would you always complain if you saw an all-female panel?
Panel sessions are used to bring a diversity of views and opinions to a conference session. And, regardless of the topic, the panellists nearly always need to be representative of the audience. Otherwise, conference organisers will see attendees vote with their feet. There will always be some topics where an all-male (notice I didn’t say all white male) will be the best people for the job, such as on the topic of “being a stay at home dad”. And likewise for all female panels.
4. No other females have complained
Not everyone in the profession saw the problem with having two all-white-male panels at Accountex. And to be fair to many of us, not everyone realises the link between role models, diversity of our leadership population and the impact of all male white panels.
I was subject to ‘robust debate’ (read into the quotation marks what you will) when I took a stand via Twitter about the make-up of these two panels and many people (particularly women) will not get involved in an online or in person ‘robust debate’.
Why is it difficult to speak out?
By speaking out on Twitter I made myself a target for some. By speaking out, you will put your head above the parapet, and this may not always be a nice experience. As Paul Meissner said in his tweet "Men hiding behind accusations of others just playing ‘gender politics’ shows an outward need to defend rather than an inward ability to reflect."
Why did I decide to speak up?
It's really easy to make a click and tweet to promote something like Practice Ignition's Top 50 women in accountancy campaigns. It makes us feel good and it is a cause really worth supporting. After all, everything which raises the profile and gives a platform to under-represented populations within the accountancy profession is good.
But would you decline to be on a panel if it was only white males? And, would you turn down the opportunity if you were proud to be asked, it was your first big break, or truly believed you were qualified to be there? After all, there is a commercial reason you turn up and volunteer to speak on a panel for free.
And this is the crux of the matter. How many of us are prepared to make a stand to help make our profession more diverse, when it could be commercially damaging for us personally? Or make us very unpopular with our employer if they have secured a place on the panel because of their sponsorship of the event?
This article has been based on an initial post I wrote on LinkedIn about the need for more diversity on the stage at accountancy events. At the time I had doubts about whether writing the article was the right thing to do. In this situation, women often get labelled as difficult. And the last thing I want to do is get on the wrong side of the organisers of the biggest trade show in the UK!
But by ignoring the issue, or rationalising that it’s someone else’s problem because I had bigger priorities at the moment, I have become complicit in maintaining the status quo.
But, when I look in my son and daughter's eyes, I know I have to speak up. I may have irrevocably damaged the environment for them, but the least I can do is create a more open, welcoming and diverse society where they can both flourish.
About Heather Townsend
Heather Townsend is Founder and Author of ‘The Accountants Millionaires’ Club’. In 2015 the ICAEW decided she was the number one online influencer for the accountancy profession. She is the author of 5 books, including The Go-To Expert, and ‘How to make partner and still have a life’ (co-authored with Jo Larbie).
Heather is always up for a challenge. Perhaps that is why she has built a track record of helping accountants grow the size of their practice by 50-200%, often in under two years. Often helping them make partner or equity partner in the process.
Heather is a high profile member of the accountancy profession in the UK. She has worked with over 300 partners, coached, trained and mentored over 2000 professionals at every level of the UK’s most ambitious professional practices. Heather's clients have included: 7 out of the Top 10 UK practices, including all the Big 4 firms.