Founder and Author The Accountants Millionaires' Club
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Are all-white-male panels hindering diversity in accountancy?

3rd May 2019
Founder and Author The Accountants Millionaires' Club
Columnist
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Discriminatory view of women in the company.
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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.

Replies (75)

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By farrcorfe
03rd May 2019 10:27

Well, quality must never be compromised for the sake of diversity. Just get the best people for the job and disregard these wider social issues

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Replying to farrcorfe:
By k743snx
03rd May 2019 10:29

The New Holy Trinity:

Equality
Diversity
Climate Change

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Replying to farrcorfe:
By Heather Townsend
03rd May 2019 10:45

farrcorfe wrote:

Well, quality must never be compromised for the sake of diversity. Just get the best people for the job and disregard these wider social issues

No-one is saying quality is being compromised for the sake of diversity. Very often this is the excuse that is used, when people have not looked hard enough outside of the roster of the normal suspects.

Global Infosys were asked to put together a panel session about outsourcing with a selection of their clients. They put together probably the most diverse panel of the whole seminar. (Both in terms of gender, experience and ethnicity)

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Replying to farrcorfe:
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By Michaelr205
03rd May 2019 11:24

That is a common response and is completely flawed.
This comment implies that "diversity" implies reducing quality as if white men are the peak of attainment.

An alternative way of looking at it is that it is impossible to consistently get the best people if you are constantly excluding 50% of them.

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By why always me
03rd May 2019 10:43

No doubt this is caused by Brexit!!!

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By Peter Cane
03rd May 2019 10:44

So let me get this right. Out of 250 panels, two of them had all white male panellists. If it was a case of say 100 out of 250, then there might be some justification for this article, but two out of 250. Come on, there's far more important battles to fight.

Why should these people have been excluded from the panels because of their skin colour and gender?

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Replying to Peter Cane:
By Heather Townsend
03rd May 2019 10:47

There were not 250 panel sessions. There were 250 sessions. Most sessions were not a panel session. I haven't gone through the programme, but I suspect the number of panels in total was under 30.

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Replying to efficiencycoach:
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By Peter Cane
03rd May 2019 10:52

OK but that's not quite how your article reads. It says "To put it into context: out of 250 seminar sessions across the two days, there were only two which featured all white male panels."

That implies to me that the 250 seminar sessions included panels.

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Replying to efficiencycoach:
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By starbanana
03rd May 2019 11:20

The way its written in the article "250 seminar sessions ....only two which featured all white male panels", is quite misleading and diminishes the wider point of the article. Putting more context as you've now done, that out of 250 sessions, around 30 where panel sessions of which 2 were all while male is clearer.

Also one other thing why is not a personal attack on only 10 of the 12 white male panellists? What did the other 2 do?

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Replying to starbanana:
By Heather Townsend
03rd May 2019 11:28

2 of the panelists were on both panels.

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Replying to starbanana:
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By Brend201
03rd May 2019 12:44

In fairness to Heather, I immediately assumed that two of the speakers were on both panels and it didn't require further explanation.

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Replying to Peter Cane:
By Glenn Martin
03rd May 2019 11:21

Dont forget there was actually 2 all female panels, but that fact is glossed over in the face of the fake outrage the "Manel" has caused.

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Replying to Glennzy:
By Heather Townsend
03rd May 2019 11:20

I didn't know that. On what topic? (And was it justified!)

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Replying to Glennzy:
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By Guilford Accounting
04th May 2019 09:16

That's outrageous! Women only panels? Where are the white males when you need them?

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Replying to Glennzy:
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By Guilford Accounting
04th May 2019 09:16

That's outrageous! Women only panels? Where are the white males when you need them?

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By Sarah Saunders
03rd May 2019 10:46

Thanks Heather, I was supporting the Twitter campaign and appreciated it.

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Replying to sarah.saunders:
By Heather Townsend
03rd May 2019 11:02

Thank you!

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By dgilmour51
03rd May 2019 10:52

How do we differentiate, in these times, between competence and tokenism?
You comment "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?" ...
but you do not mean diverse - you mean you want to drive the number of female accountants in UK from the cirrent circa 44% to >50%.
OR do you mean that the profession should reflect society as a whole, for example having 14.4% of accountants with foreign-born parents and 9.5% being non-British?
Most systems tend to an equilibrium position that typifies the lowest energy state in the prevailing conditions - so it was probably just too much work to find a 'better' set for the panels [and to what advantage?] - anyway its the brains I'm interested in, not the container thereof.

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Replying to dgilmour51:
By Heather Townsend
03rd May 2019 11:07

The problem is we are ignoring many of the best brains by always going to the normal suspects. It's not about tokenism vs competence. It's about looking further and harder to find well qualified people from outside of the normal talent pools.

I am not naive enough to think that we can get a leadership population in the accountancy profession which is representative of the make up of the UK as a whole in my lifetime. Particularly as there will always be attrition of females from student to partner level as the family thing gets in the way.

However, we do need to make steps to get our leadership population more representative of the population in the UK. Diversity is good for business.

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Replying to efficiencycoach:
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By Bsuere
03rd May 2019 11:50

"Particularly as there will always be attrition of females from student to partner level as the family thing gets in the way."

Whilst I agree that this is currently true, I hope that it will not always be the case and that this issue will at least diminish in years to come.

It is possible for men to take a more equal share in the upbringing of children and the management of home life, allowing women to feel they are able to stay in their careers.

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Replying to dgilmour51:
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By Guilford Accounting
04th May 2019 09:19

Well said.

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By Ronny123
03rd May 2019 10:52

Are all-white-male panels hindering diversity in accountancy?

No, snowflakes are hindering society with their never ending complaints (and I am not white by the way).

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Replying to Ronny123:
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By Michaelr205
03rd May 2019 11:37

Then I am proud to be a snowflake

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By tedbuck
03rd May 2019 10:59

Perhaps the ladies (may we still call them that these days?) have got more sense than to waste their time sitting on panels.
It shouldn't be a surprise that ladies fall out of the profession to look after their families which is probably a more important task than totting up figures. Judging by the general performance of children these days and all the things they cannot do it would be a lot better if parents devoted more time to their children and less to the 'phones and careers.
My neighbour's daughter teaches in a semi deprived area school and they have children starting in reception who aren't toilet trained and cannot cope with an unpealed apple - that is they don't know how to eat it.
It doesn't matter which parent deals with children as long as they do but it seems now that other things are more important.
It's about time we got back to basics before today's children become impossible to train for anything at all. Diversity will be worth nothing then will it?

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Replying to tedbuck:
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By Michaelr205
03rd May 2019 11:34

"Perhaps the ladies (may we still call them that these days?) have got more sense than to waste their time sitting on panels."
It is really is pretty patronising don't you think....
Ps it's spelt "unpeeled".

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Replying to tedbuck:
Caroline
By accountantccole
03rd May 2019 12:18

Why aren't men falling out of the profession to look after families?

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By David Gordon FCCA
03rd May 2019 11:03

I do sometimes get hot under the collar over this type of article.
Old philosophical dilemma:
Tom tells Dick that Harry studies three hours per night.
Q) Is this a compliment or is it a criticism?
A) The answer is you do not know except and unless you are aware of Harry's circumstances.
a) If he works full time and then studies at night, it is a compliment
b) If he is full time at university, then only studying three hours a day is unacceptable.

It all depends.

When I started in the profession there were still adverts in the press as "White Christian firm requires clerk"
My friend was the firm's first Indian, and I was its first Jew. We were exotic species. The partner (Heaven give him peace) was ex-Indian Army, major (retired). Pukka Sahib, a lovely guy.

I do not know how these panels are chosen. Except and unless I did know, I would not sound off.
I do have a little experience of trying to find persons for such panels. It is not easy.
Not only must they be knowledgeable, they must be personable and articulate, and must be prepared to take whatever reward your offering.
So, the time to complain is after you and your audience are aware of the selection procedure, not beforehand.

You are probably correct in your complaint, but the manner of proceeding with it is not constructive.
See Tom, Dick, and Harry above.

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By johnjenkins
03rd May 2019 11:11

Diversity, weren't they on Britain's got talent?

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By Diana Miller
03rd May 2019 11:13

As a female sole practitioner I must say I don't have much of a problem with it. I think women in the professional are recognised for their merits these days. My other half is an engineering lecturer and gets pressure to positively select women and it drives him mad- he picks the best irrespective of gender. I would not want it to be any other way.

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By Bsuere
03rd May 2019 11:16

Thank you for this article, it was an interesting read and an important topic to discuss.

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By Ian McTernan CTA
03rd May 2019 11:36

So was there a similar outrage on the two all-female panels? No? Why not? Surely in this PC-mad world that should rank equally as something we should all get vexed over?

All female sessions, women only sessions, seems they are OK.

Try organising a male only session and the twits (that's people on twitter) are up in arms.

Best people for the job should be the ONLY criteria. Whether they be black, white, pink, purple, aliens, women, men, inbetween, whatever.

Unless someone can prove there was intentional bias in the picking of 30 panels this article is just typical $%^^ stirring.

Even a basic accounts student could tell you under standard deviation it's likely that in a random distribution results of 5 all white male or 5 all female are to be expected.

If it's such a huge issue, form your own trade show- must be plenty of demand for it, right?

We don't need diversity for diversity's sake- we need the best people for the job. If that person happens to be white male and in their 40's or 50s and straight then it shouldn't lead to moral outrage.

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Replying to Ian McTernan CTA:
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By Michaelr205
03rd May 2019 11:52

The thing is when people say "Best people for the job should be the ONLY criteria." they invariably select a white male
And they pay them more!
And actually, it is a huge issue.

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Replying to Michaelr205:
By Glenn Martin
03rd May 2019 12:30

That touches on a good point. Accountex is a free event, so I imagine the speakers do not get paid for attending panels.

Could it be that some women or some men were asked but did not accept as there was no fee attached?

Maybe the OP could clarify this point.

I have seen nearly of those that operate in the accountant /guru space, from the good to the bad.

The panels concerned for me featured the very top end of the list, and I feel those making the fuss over this is more down to professional envy at not making the cut, which they are trying to wrap into a gender issue which I do find disappointing and takes the shine off all the great women who I saw talk at Accountex.

Google has female CFO, who I imagine is a fairly decent at her job and not just there to tick a box.

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Replying to Glennzy:
By Heather Townsend
03rd May 2019 12:56

Glenn I can assure you that professional jealousy has not driven me to make a stand. What actually almost stopped me from saying anything at all was whether it was commercial suicide. I have no desire to get on the wrong side of speaker bookers, nor the members of the panel, nor the organisers of the largest trade show for Accountants in Europe.

I wasn't asked to be on the panel, and I'm frankly not bothered to have been asked. Being asked to speak on a panel is nice, but has a lousy ROI if you are trying to win business directly from it.

Accountex kindly gave me a seminar slot of my own AND a round table session. I would have struggled to do much more on the education programme as I had people to talk too, both from a new member, existing member and networking angle.

As I said in my article, my motivation for making a stand came from looking at my daughter and son and wanting to make their life in business just a little easier than mine.

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Replying to Michaelr205:
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By Ian McTernan CTA
03rd May 2019 13:19

Really? Who is this 'they' that are so clearly breaking the law?

And I assume you have evidence to back this all up so you can report to the authorities?

And as clearly, only 2 of the 30+ panels were all white male, 2 were all female, so the rest were mixed, so your 'invariably' looks very shaky too.

As for paying them more, that's also clearly breaking the law so looks like you have plenty of work to do with your mountain of evidence. Which you do have, rather than just a knee jerk response of 'actually, it is a huge issue'?

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Replying to Ian McTernan CTA:
Caroline
By accountantccole
03rd May 2019 12:28

Isn't there a more fundamental issue here. Why aren't the minorities able to compete on an equal playing field? Why isn't that group of the best people/ those at the top level in the profession made up of a more diverse mix in the first place?
It is a cultural issue. Things have definitely progressed in my lifetime and I can see opportunities for my daughter that I never had.
Positive discrimination, showcasing to the outside world that everyone is equal has to be a step towards changing the cultural norms.
I have chosen career over family, my ex husband stayed at home to do childcare but I felt I was failing my children in some way. I shouldn't have had to feel guilty about wanting to be successful in my career. How many men have felt guilt when letting someone else raise their children?
Excellent article Heather

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Replying to accountantccole:
By Glenn Martin
03rd May 2019 22:30

Accountex published a call for papers for those wishing to present/talk at Accountex which was open for several months.

This was an open offer to anyone who wanted to do it

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Replying to Glennzy:
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By cathygrimmer
03rd May 2019 13:24

Clearly it wasn't fair and equal - but I think you will find that it wasn't women who made the decision that only men could fight. Indeed, women in the armed forces have battled to get the right to fight. Had the armed forces become an equal opportunities employer rather earlier than 2016, the male/female make up of fighters if war happened tomorrow might have been rather different! I'm not saying you don't have some good arguments to support your stance but I'm afraid this isn't one of them.

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Replying to cathygrimmer:
By Glenn Martin
03rd May 2019 13:50

Two different things you are talking about.

One is a choice.

Conscription was an act of government passed where every man between 18-40 had to go and do his duty.

You to do it or it was jail or worse for not doing it.

It puts the outrage of 5 men on a panel into perspective though.

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Replying to Glennzy:
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By cathygrimmer
03rd May 2019 14:50

Sorry, Glenn, but I don't understand the relevance of conscription or men fighting to this particular discussion. I suspect we are all agreed that conscription wasn't fair - i.e. not gender equality - but then it was imposed by men on men in respect of wars declared by men. Maybe women in charge would have made a different decision but as they weren't permitted to be in positions of power, we shall never know. I think perhaps you have got confused about what topic is under discussion here.

I don't know enough about Accountex to comment on its diversity specifically but I'd hazard a guess that, if there was any bias towards middle-aged white men, it is because, like the armed forces, accountancy was a johnny-come-lately to the arena of gender and race equality and, hopefully, the passage of time will see more female and minority representation as both rise through the ranks. I've been in the tax business for nearly 40 years so I am speaking from experience.

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Replying to cathygrimmer:
By Glenn Martin
03rd May 2019 15:28

There was no bias that is the whole point.

There was 250 different sessions over the 2 days. of those 2 had men only panels and 2 had all women panels.

Prior to the event an open call for papers was asked for anyone interested in doing a talk or presenting. it was open and transparant process.

However the 5 man panel was highlighted as a huge scandal and instead of a discreet and professional call to the organisers to discuss, instead set social media alight with this fake outrage for no other reason than website clicks and self promotion, involving accountants from all over the world.

Zoe who organised it (a woman on maternity leave) had to talk time out to come and deal with the fallout which considering the topic is [***] poor to even most liberal of people.

The level of abuse directed at her was appalling and those involved should be ashamed.

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Replying to Glennzy:
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By Michaelr205
03rd May 2019 14:33

Are you talking about the same women who made the decision to go to war? Oh wait, it wasn't women was it, I can't think of any wars which were started by women. I can think of the millions of women who pay the price for war.

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Replying to Michaelr205:
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By dgilmour51
03rd May 2019 15:15

Michaelr205 wrote:

... it wasn't women was it, I can't think of any wars which were started by women....

As a matter of fact, throughout history, queens were more likely to wage war than kings. In fact, between 1480 and 1913, Europe’s queens were 27% more likely than its kings to wage war [according to a National Bureau of Economics working paper (paywall)].
Cleopatra, Boudicca, Queen Maeve, Mary Tudor and Mrs.Thatcher immediately spring to mind.
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Replying to Glennzy:
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By dmmarler
08th May 2019 11:34

Where was this advertised, Glen? We'd like to know for next year.

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Replying to dmmarler:
By Glenn Martin
08th May 2019 19:11

Hi it was advertised on the Accountex website plus a lot of posts on Social media LinkedIn etc

You just had to fill in an application form on the website and they selected them from there

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Replying to dmmarler:
By Glenn Martin
08th May 2019 19:11

Hi it was advertised on the Accountex website plus a lot of posts on Social media LinkedIn etc

You just had to fill in an application form on the website and they selected them from there

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Replying to accountantccole:
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By dgilmour51
03rd May 2019 13:28

accountantccole wrote:

... everyone is equal ...

I absolutely disagree.
The very best we can do is provide equality of opportunity - and then individuals will grade themselves inside that opportunity space based on their talent [for want of a better word], personalities, manual or mental dexterity or whatever - excepting that we have to skew the system according to the cultural mores of the currently most vociferous minority.
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Replying to accountantccole:
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By Guilford Accounting
04th May 2019 09:27

Nobody 'made' you feel guilty. You have to think to feel guilty and you can decide to think you aren't guilty.

Don't blame others for how you decide to feel.

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Replying to Guilford Accounting:
Lone Wolf
By Lone_Wolf
07th May 2019 10:58

Guilford Accounting wrote:

Don't blame others for how you decide to feel.


Why? Didn't you know that everything is someone else's fault these days? Usually they horrible white males. We'd be better off without them in all honesty.
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By Dandan
03rd May 2019 13:06

Not sure where the insecurity comes from. why should 6 people that accidentally came together have to stop and rethink their appearance.

I suppose it is a sign of the times. On TV , all adverts , it seems , feature mixed couples and children. Perhaps we cannot be trusted to get on with each other and the political correctness has to be shoved down our throat.

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