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

Thanks (1)
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.

Thanks (2)
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:
Glenn Martin
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 schoo