Unconscious bias in the profession

Business brunch with colleagues
The Imprudent Accountant
An unnamed firm
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It was entirely coincidental but just ahead of International Women’s Day last week, I attended a course intended to raise awareness about unconscious bias.

The fact that the accountancy profession is faring badly when it comes to gender equality is well documented and it can only be a matter of time before an individual firm or possibly the industry as a whole is subjected to criticism followed by severe embarrassment at our failure to project women into senior roles.

Although GT bucked the trend for a period, at present none of the major firms has a woman running the show, while I have little doubt that almost all still have a massive preponderance of male equity partners despite protestations that they are doing their best to redress the balance.

These days, firms are very much attuned to the potential difficulties arising if they do not make a fuss about what they are doing to promote the cause of women. The problem is that, unless I’m missing something, their words and their deeds do not seem too closely aligned.

I’m quite prepared to accept that many firms, small, large and everything in between, have managed to reach a position where junior professional staff are fairly evenly split between male and female.

The problem comes at the extremes. Most of the administrative and support staff are likely to be females earning relatively little, while senior posts are still overwhelmingly held by men raking in most of the firms’ profits. Positive discrimination sounds good in theory but in practice seems to have had little effect beyond giving some women an opportunity to reach junior managerial status more quickly.

It pains me to suggest that there may well be quite a bit of inbuilt reluctance to allow women to reach top roles. There is every chance that in the fullness of time this imbalance will change naturally. However, that may be too late to help those who have already hit the glass ceiling.

I would be willing to bet that if you could look into the hearts of mature equity partners (including some females) up and down the country, you would discover a number of unspoken viewpoints.

  1. Hiring and promoting women is a mistake because they might get pregnant.
  2. You can’t have female partners with children as they will never be fully committed.
  3. Women have less stamina than men and will not work as hard.
  4. Clients will be reluctant to work with female partners.
  5. Younger women might not be safe in the company of some of our clients.

The unconscious bit of the bias is something that really should be addressed much more directly by every firm in the country, with the assistance of professional bodies.

About The Imprudent Accountant

About The Imprudent Accountant

Someone who should know better, but can't resist the occasional rant about the more exasperating aspects of the accountancy profession.


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11th Mar 2019 17:25

Regarding 3., I don't know what sort of stamina you mean but as a general rule athletically men are stronger but women have better stamina.
And if it is mental, I assume women must have better stamina again as they tend to out perform men on exams.

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12th Mar 2019 08:54

No 2 is just a reinforcement of the same tired standby that men work and women look after the kids. The only thing that men can't do is actually have the kids in the first place. Both parents should be capable of raising them.

Whilst ostensibly pro-women, I found this article also seems to be reinforcing this point. The staff are all working mums, with the implication that this is the natural order. https://www.accountingweb.co.uk/practice/general-practice/practice-talk-...

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12th Mar 2019 09:36

I have observed with interest a couple we know in their mid 30's who have just had a child. Both are lawyers. Both have taken 6 months m/paternity leave to cover the first year. Both are going to work 4 day weeks ongoing. But both also accept this dappens their career prospects compared to one of them keeping on the 5-6 day a week thing they used to. ie this is not the model for making future partners, ie they are not able to put their everything into it, but a model for a very equal marriage which is currently a rarity, but becoming more common.

Compare with another couple we know of a similar age. He is an accountant of reasonable ability. She is a lawyer of high ability (oxford uni grad). We suspect they are not going to have kids, so she can make partner. Her firm we understand demands that any prospective partner has a line up for home help, eg partner supporting + domestics ++++ given the level of commitment they want. Its total immersion, not a 35 hour a week role.

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12th Mar 2019 13:01

Given some of the responses to last week's Int Woman's Day article goo.gl/mzpFuE this topic is timely, if not well overdue.

We all grow up with unconscious (implicit/inherent) bias of one kind or another and I think the way to handle it is not to beat your self up when you become aware of it and/or not reacting with the classic get out "political correctness gone mad".

My daughter is a surgeon, about a year away from making consultant, and, in her male dominated world, she has to deal with bias on a regular basis, eg being asked by surgeon attendees to get them a coffee when she was setting up to give a lecture or being called nurse in theatre when scrubbing up (some of this was conscious).

This has all been magnified by her taking maternity leave last year and now being seen as a lesser being compared to her male contemporaries. What's so sad is that, as women are also not immune from inheriting patriarchal social bias, she has to fight the feeling she is now subordinate.

Harvard University has been running Project Implicit for 20 years, it's worth taking the test: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/uk/

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13th Mar 2019 12:02

The ongoing debates about Brexit (which everyine is heartily fed up with) are not half as boring as this article.

Being a little older than most I have had 50 years experience of working in different environments with differing levels of male and female staff. Some have been male dominated and some female dominated. Some have been large organisations and some small.

Some of the men have been excellent, some have been useless. Some of the women have been excellent, some have been useless. Men and womem, in terms of their working abilites, are no different.

Having said that, there are circumastances where certain roles in certain environments, at particular points in time, are best suited to men. In others women are best suited.

I have no problem in hiring either sex, in any role at any time. It depends on the circumstances and the abilities of the candidates available.

What I do object to is being told that I must hire, allocate roles, promote etc and have to have a balance to reflect society etc.

Finally I would most certainly object to a professional body telling me to do something because of a particular agenda they happen to be following at a particular time. In such circumstances my membership of such a body eg ICAEW would cease immediatley.

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