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Girls allowed: a fair deal for women in practice and business. By Louise Druce

21st Jun 2007
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Despite a rise in the number of female accountants achieving senior positions in business, the boardroom is still percieved as almost exclusively a boys' club. It is a similar story in practice. Much of the time, the imbalance is unintentional. So what can businesses and firms do to create a level playing field for all employees?

The reasons why women still struggle to reach the top are myriad, but there are entrenched attitudes among male executives that still play a large part. “When I became a partner I walked into my first meeting and one partner said: ‘Oh great, you are here to make the coffee’,” bemoaned a female chartered accountant employed by one of the ‘big four’, who was interviewed for a survey by the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland (ICAS).

“If [some of the female senior managers] had a £1 for every time somebody said to them ‘are you thinking about babies and when are you going to have them?’” lamented another. Even a male partner at a large firm admitted it would be easier for women to focus on a career and make partnership before starting a family.

Furthermore, it appears that even when women reach the top, they are still on perilous ground. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) says the oft-mentioned glass ceiling has become a glass cliff, where positions of leadership are associated with greater risk of failure.

Another woman interviewed for the CIPD’s study 'Women in the boardroom. The risks of being on top' said: “I was promoted into a difficult management role (where a previous male manager had failed) with the hope that I would turn it around. When I did, the ‘reward’ was to be moved to another turnaround role – without any financial reward or kudos. Meanwhile, male peers appeared to work less hard (fewer hours) in maintenance roles – and with greater reward. I often wonder if I’m just a fool to accept such challenges. I doubt that men would.”

Whatever the reason for women struggling to get to the top, the conundrum for firms and companies is how to create real equal opportunities in the workplace rather than squirreled away in the HR folder.

Time ain’t on your side

It is easy for ardent champions of the cause to cast men as the sole, moustache-twirling villains, locking women out of the ivory tower. However, evidence shows that many men know women are a valuable asset to the workplace. It’s the way company culture has developed into a working hours contest that is proving a bigger barrier to progression.

“I used to work in a multi-national firm and there was an expectation that you would be there at 8am and if you left before 6pm they wondered where you were going,” says Professor Elizabeth Gammie, who led the research team for the ICAS report 'Women of ICAS reaching the top: The demise of the glass ceiling', and is also an accounting lecturer at Aberdeen Business School, Robert Gordon University.

“There was also an expectation to work weekends – there were often more people there then than had been there during the week. It became an all-embracing way of life. People of both genders don’t want this any longer.”

Even though both genders may suffer, working up to a 55 hour week or more to climb the greasy pole has become a part of company culture and defines the ‘macho culture’. Gammie says something has to give, and the solution could be more flexible working, led by example from the top. That way, if the boss spends two days working from home, it’s harder to accuse part-time colleagues or those who want to clock off on time for once, of slacking off.

“The partners we interviewed certainly seemed to intimate that it was virtually impossible to be a partner and work part-time,” says Gammie. “There is still a macho culture that if you want to get ahead you need to be seen to be putting in the hours. And the higher up in the organisation you are, the more you seem to need to work.

“Having said that, one of the four big firms has two part-time female partners. People are increasingly challenging the necessity of working long hours but the partners themselves need to proactively embrace flexible working and have female role models who have the work/life balance. Then they can see how it’s possible and how they managed the process.”

Championing the cause

Still on the subject of role models, there is another area of contention. Gammie says that the majority of male senior accountants will have had, at one time, some form of mentoring to get ahead, but this figure tilts towards the extreme minority for women.

Most financial firms do have mentoring schemes in place, usually on an informal basis. However, are less inclined to want to approach senior male colleagues to ask for mentorship, says Gammie. Other possible concerns might be that a close bond between a women starting out at a firm and a senior male colleague might be misconstrued. All of this could be remedied by formalising the mentoring process.

“Sometimes gender doesn’t come into it,” emphasises Dianah Worman, diversity advisor at the CIPD. “Not everyone is good at being a mentor, so you need to look at how they are being chosen. It’s also about the way both parties are being supported and guided so they have a good experience. You have to feel comfortable.”

In the same vein, female workers need more avenues by which to air any grievances they have in the workplace without fear it will come back to bite them. “There is a sense that if you complain you damage your career prospects,” says Ashley Norman, employment partner at law firm Pinsent Masons. “Although the law protects employees against this kind of victimisation, it still goes on. There is a responsibility on employers to introduce systems and policies which make it possible for women to complain and get a hearing without fear of reprisals.

“I have often read terrific policies in handbooks or on extranets only to discover, to my dismay, that they are little known by members of staff. Employers must also understand that communication should not just be to those who may wish to use these policies (e.g. women). It is equally important that all staff are aware of them and the consequences of non-compliance.”

Women will not be the only victims if the macho culture isn’t given a boost of oestrogen and prejudice prevails, firms will miss the opportunity to mine a valuable source of talent, and, given the relative shortage of trained individuals, says ICAS president Isobel Sharp, it is a loss they can ill afford.

“Firms are working hard to encourage female progression,” she admits. “The numbers of young women entering the profession now will undoubtedly create a greater push for female partnership in the next decade, but it must be made clear that partnership can be a career choice that is able to be balanced with family life. Firms have to ensure that their policies are taken seriously by all individuals within it.”


Replies (10)

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By neileg
28th Jun 2007 15:34

Not as simple as that
In many areas of business the 'macho culture' tends to discriminate against anyone regardless of their gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or disability. If you aren't 200% committed to work above all else, then there's something wrong with you. I've been aware of discrimination against staff serving with the TA. Why should you have a couple of weeks off work (never mind that the company doesn't pay) to go and play soldiers? Not sure how much more macho you can get that being under fire in Iraq in a burnt out Warrior!

The very concept of a work life balance is alien to some organisations, no matter what you choose to do in your side of the balance equation - it might be having babies, it might simply be chosing to be at home with your partner at a reasonable time of the evening.

OK, there's a spectrum of cultures and there may be a shift over time to more enlightened views, but to think that tackling sexism in isolation is the best way to go is missing the point, in my view.

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By prue.stopford
26th Jun 2007 12:22

Women need to change their attitudes
In 1970 I was the second female to be articled to a medium sized firm of Chartered Accountants in the City. I was only eighteen and it was very daunting. However, between us the other girl and I were able to convince our male counterparts that we were serious contenders. We did not try to compete with them, we joined the team. We contributed in our own way, our talents and abilities; we often experienced difficulties with “male chauvinist” clients, but we were never aggressive or argumentative. We were always polite, and I still find to this day that good manners open more doors than heavy-handedness. We passed our exams and progressed up the ladder without questioning our seniors’ judgment, and this too helped us to be assessed and judged more as members of the team than as a “minority group”. Yes, we may have been given the more difficult clients to contend with, but our very acceptance of this earned us respect, not criticism. I remember well a client who point blank refused to speak to me, the senior on the audit, and would answer my questions to the (male) junior – who did not understand the matters being discussed! In these situations you need a good sense of humour, and you work round the problem. The point I am making is this: I feel that many young women in accountancy today take an attitude towards their male colleagues which does not do them any favours. I now come across a type of businesswoman who is aggressive, dominating and determined to out-do “the men”. She is talented and has ability, but I would not want to employ her. And yes, she will probably want to take maternity leave in the next few years which would completely disrupt my practice. This is not a problem which is going to go away. But women need to be more relaxed in business, and to adopt an attitude which does not expect special favours simply because of gender. Top positions are earned by those who are truly suited to them, not just those who have the ability. I am sure that I will have said things which women find contentious, but as one of those who started out a long time ago and has managed to reach a senior position in business which commands the respect of many businessmen, I feel qualified to offer my advice on a situation which can only be improved by a change in attitude and a revision of values.

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By User deleted
26th Jun 2007 11:40

It's not all one way traffic
As the ex-president of the World Bank would be able to attest to.

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Dennis Howlett
By dahowlett
25th Jun 2007 16:49

Can we do a call?
Rachel - I'd very much like to speak with you about your experience as this is an issue that I know is important. If you are prepared to speak then I can be contacted at dahowlett[at]gmail[dot]com


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By User deleted
25th Jun 2007 14:32

Compromises sometimes required
There seems to be a common perception here that women are going to all go off and have babies. Not all do.

Is the anomosity to all that do down to covering their workload for a limited time? Would you feel the same if an absence for a male colleague was as long due to serious ill health?

There also seems to be a long-hours culture issue coming into play. Why is someone working shorter hours (and therefore often more alert) and having their pay proportionately reduced demonised?

I have been on lower pay than a male colleague who worked shorter hours, had poorer job stats and wasn't as qualified until I complained and my pay was put up. If I hadn't accidentally seen his pay figure I would never have known.

Sexism does exist in accountancy and switching to a system of complaints procedures (which if used will in a lot of cases affect your career prospects) isn't going to help. For anyone who watched the recent "sex, the city and me" I thought it a good reflection of how women "fit in" in the professions and how equality really hasn't reached us at all. Women who do make it through the system tend to be far harder against women than men are. The real choice for women is to do whatever it takes to fit in or make something on their own. I'm now a sole practitioner and have an extraordinarily high proportion of female business clients compared to every practice I have worked in. Maybe female only firms will be the future for ambitious women.

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By User deleted
22nd Jun 2007 16:56

We are not all the same, we are all equal
A level playing field is precisely what is required. It is not always achieved by treating everyone in exactly the same way however. Mark St seems to suggest that women must make a straighforward choice between having children and having a career. An attitude last fashionable around 1950 I believe.

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Dennis Howlett
By dahowlett
22nd Jun 2007 17:06

You what?
Apart from the fact this is a retread of a piece already done by The Age - I cannot believe I'm reading this kind of macho, patronising BS from commenters. It typifies the utter failure of people to understand the dynamics that underpin inequality.

While on the subject, similar issues arise for blacks and asians. Their response, especially among the asian community, has been to establish their own practices.

There are women only legal practices, why not women only firms of CAs? If anyone knows of any I'd be delighted to hear from them.

Having said that - it's worth checking out greendotlife for an insight into the greasy pole problem.

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By User deleted
22nd Jun 2007 14:54

Cloud cuckoo land, etc.
"..but it must be made clear that partnership can be a career choice that is able to be balanced with family life."

Ok, well find a firm (or company) that's prepared to have female partner (director) walk out one day saying: "Ta-ta guys, see you in a year after I've had the baby and settled it into nursery school. Actually, I may not come back. But if I do come back I want to walk straight back into my partner job and work flexi. Look, I'll call you, ok. "

Male greasy pole climbers are never allowed by society to 'balance their career with family life', or to insist their spot on the pole is reserved for them whilst they go off somewhere for a sabbatical or whatever. So why should females expect this?

You can't have your bun and your penny, nomatter how hard you try to impose 'enlightened' views on the real world.

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By User deleted
22nd Jun 2007 15:35

It can be done
Surely the solution is to work towards achieving a situation where both men and women can balance work with home/family life - not to deprive women of the right to do so. Believing this to be an attainable goal is not 'cloud cuckoo land'.

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By User deleted
22nd Jun 2007 16:09

Women don't want a level playing field
It seems to me that the last thing women want is a level playing field. They had it and they failed.

Women want and need a playing field that is severely tilted against men so they can mitigate their employment disadvantages and have a chance of playing.

Commercial organisations only survive by seeking advantage and demonstrate this with their chequebooks by hiring the people who give the best value - whatever the gender. That would be a level playing field.

Scandinavian countries recognise that women take more career breaks and retire earlier than men and it is the more valuable longer serving and committed people who get the top positions. In other enlightened and sophisticated societies these factors are recognised and accepted. Why not in this country?

That is a more level playing field.

Why should women be given costly employment advantages over men?

Isn't it wrong that this discrete and defined group should have draconian and fearful legislation to promote their interests at work to the detriment of their colleagues? For a hackneyed and trite example - example, a mother's absence to be with a newborn child, whilst laudable, is still an absence and will need to be covered (and paid for). Men don't have this requirement. Perhaps promotion should be dependent on a certificate of sterilisation? Sorry, women can't have it all.

Work - Life balance? Women should stop whinging. One can hear the wining about difficulties and complaints in this article. Get out of the kitchen if you can't (or are not prepared to) take the heat. In any case, stop whinging and take responsibility for your choices.

Macho? Yes - we need the masculine and we need to be proud of it - and not accept the shame that women seek to ascribe to masculinity.

Can one bear to imagine the outrage and shame meted out if men were discriminated for in the same way that women are? Deafening I expect.

What is it about women that makes them so unattractive to employ that they have to have such prejudicial and discriminatory legislation just so they can get a job next to a man?

We all need to accept that we are not all equal. We are wonderfully diverse.

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