What 20 years in accountancy has taught meby
As she approaches her 20-year milestone, director of Wynne & Co Sarah Wynne examines how the profession has changed and how she’d like to see it develop in the future.
In a couple of months, I’ll have worked in accountancy for 20 years. This seems a good opportunity to look at how the profession has changed in the past two decades, and how I’d like to see it evolve in the next two decades. Much of this relates to the role of women.
When I started out working for an accountancy firm, all the senior roles in that firm were held by men, and they all fitted the historical stereotype of the grey suited, briefcase-carrying accountant.
My own boss in the branch I worked for was quite progressive, because almost all of his employees were women. Even before I was qualified, he was keen to send me on CPD training courses, where I remember being massively outnumbered by men. Not only would there be hardly any women in the room, but I was probably 15 to 20 years younger than most of the other people. I remember feeling quite self-conscious and out of place.
Over the years, though, the balance has shifted to the point that now, my juniors tell me that women outweigh men on their courses. In the same period, the services involved in the profession have changed enormously.
In particular, there's been a shift from compliance work towards a more advisory role. There is now much more of an emphasis on building a relationship with the client, and maybe this has made the job more appealing for women.
There’s also a lot more multitasking. Whether women are truly better at this is a moot point, but there’s no doubt that as more processes are automated, accountants can handle more tasks simultaneously. We no longer have to spend two weeks working on one set of accounts.
Another result of all the new technology is that it facilitates flexible working, meaning we no longer need to work 9-5 in an office. This shift has been hugely accelerated by Covid. In February 2020 I would have told you it is not possible for our firm to be paperless. Then, because we had no choice, we did it, and we did it in record time. Now I want to strip out everything in all the offices and make the whole place paperless.
I’m also committed to keeping home working as an option for my team. Some people have asked me how I know my staff are doing the job, saying they personally would find it difficult to trust their team. In practice though, it’s easy to measure, because we have time sheets and you can see your team’s productivity. We set an expectation to get a certain number of things completed every month, and beyond that, you just trust your staff to do it. This type of culture is perfect for parents, male and female, who want to work flexible hours so they can fulfil family commitments.
I suspect that increased flexibility may be part of why the number of female accountants is on the rise – but when it comes to ownership of firms, women are still massively outnumbered by men. This is not unique to accountancy; I also see a disappointing proportion of female owners in the smaller businesses that we work with.
I think some of this is a confidence issue – and in accountancy, perhaps women are not attracted to the level of compliance needed to run your own firm. This is definitely the worst part of the job – and those regulatory changes continue to happen while you’re away on maternity leave. You can't just switch off and forget about it.
The fact that chartered firms are more highly regulated leads to a lot of debate about what benefit we get from being chartered accountants – but I take pride in it and the fact that I can tell people we are highly regulated, highly trained, and insured. Clients don't necessarily see the benefit of that at first; they only see our higher fees, but I’ve seen plenty of people realise the value when they use non-regulated accountants and something goes wrong.
It’s true that the need to stay abreast of regulations may make it harder to deal with maternity leave, but I don’t think that should put women off – and in an ideal world, their partners should be sharing the parenting responsibilities. It’s true that time out may set your career back for a while, but when a woman has the same level of qualifications and experience as a man, I would like to see her have equally broad horizons. And I won’t be satisfied until 50% of accountancy firms are owned by women.
We need male business owners to help women progress to the point where they can take these positions. They should be eager to promote their female staff, give them the same opportunities as men and not penalise them if they want to take six months or a year off for maternity leave. Instead, they should help them return and catch up. I’d also like to see female business owners being committed to helping other women get up the ladder, and I’d like to see young female accountants being ambitious about their future careers.
Creating a supportive environment for women creates plenty of advantages for a firm. Loyalty is a big factor; recent studies have found that employees are less likely to move for money, and more likely to stay for things such as work life balance and flexi work.
This doesn’t just apply to women; men also want to do school runs, go to school plays and go to sports day. If you can create a firm that allows for your staff to do those things, your staff retention should improve, along with morale and productivity. That’s the type of atmosphere I strive to create at Wynne & Co, and I hope it will become the norm in all accounting firms in the future.
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Sarah Wynne is the founding director of Wynne & Co, a Wales-based accountancy firm with clients across the UK. After a stint studying computer programming, she started out in accountancy in 2001, earning Chartered Accountant status in 2005. She set up Wynne & Co in Carmarthen in 2013, expanding to the second office in Cross Hands in...