The accountancy profession has made efforts to embrace a diverse and gender-balanced culture, but it's clear more still needs to be done.
When Jessica Pillow had her first child, she returned to work as partner of a busy firm after taking two and half months of maternity leave. And ended up returning in January working what she described as “crazy hours” while still breastfeeding. Tax return season rests for no one. Her child was too young to be put into childcare, so her mother and mother-in-law helped out.
And then, after seeing the back of another busy season, Pillow was told that she wasn’t pulling her weight. “I was like 'sod you'. If that's not pulling your weight I don't know what is. I physically cannot do more,” she recalls today, wearing her signature Pillow May pink.
Pillow has used that February clash ten years ago to influence her own practice trajectory. She realised that there needed to be a better way. “That's why Pillow May has always been for women,” she said. “It's to show the profession that you can be a fully professional accountancy firm but still be a working mum at the same time.”
Pillow’s decision to go it alone and set up Pillow May came at a time when cloud-based tools were changing the profession. It afforded her the flexibility to look after her children and work as she wanted.
[Pillow May shows] the profession that you can be a fully professional accountancy firm but still be a working mum at the same time.
And that balance is the reason why she’s decided against growing her practice for at least the next five-to-ten years. “The most important thing when I look at my team is for us to have a work-life balance.”
Where are we now?
International Women’s Day on 8 March serves as a call for gender equality. But on the 100-year anniversary of Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, which saw ICAEW admit Mary Harris Smith as its first female member, Pillow’s story is still familiar to many women in the profession.
The macho, inflexible work culture continues to grind. And the corrosive behaviour that was previously swept under the carpet is only now finally coming to light thanks to social movements like the #MeToo campaign.
Just December last year, the Big Four revealed the inappropriate behaviour perpetrated by partners within their senior ranks. And in April last year, the gender pay gap provided embarrassing reading for accountancy's larger firms, with Grant Thornton at the time scoring most unfavourably amongst the top six.
'Hearts and minds' culture change
While these admissions show signs that the profession is ready to embrace a more inclusive gender balance, Cheap Accounting’s Elaine Clark says more still needs to be done.
“A hearts and minds culture change is needed in the profession to connect the words spouted by some about their inclusivity culture, to the actions by their leaders who need to demonstrate that they are wholeheartedly embracing the changes rather than inappropriately attempting to embrace members of staff,” she said.
A hearts and minds culture change is needed in the profession to connect the words spouted by some about their inclusivity culture
Clark formed the Women in Accountancy group in an attempt to stamp out under-representation of women across the profession: from speakers at conferences to the partner pages of larger accountancy firms. But after 30-plus years into the profession, she doubts that she will see true equality and diversity in her lifetime. “There's been some change but it's still dominated by chaps in grey suits with many excellent women getting fed up with it and going alone or leaving the profession.”
When Clark organised the first Women in Accountancy roundtable at Accountex last year, the attendees shared similar stories of being the lone female voice at management level and gritting teeth to the “don’t worry your little head” comments.
Change needed at the top
Former practice owner Della Hudson believes change needs to come from the top. “Too many seem to treat diversity as a word and not a way of life,” she said. “Girls need more visible female role models everywhere to know what they can aspire to.”
The lack of women in senior positions became even more conspicuous last year when Sacha Romanovitch, the first female chief executive of a large firm, stepped down from her role at Grant Thornton.
Making that story worse is the fact an anonymous group of disgruntled Grant Thornton partners leaked Romanovitch’s performance review. The accompanying cut-throat barbs directed at Romanovitch’s reveals a more nasty culture issue, regardless of gender.
“It seems in our industry we almost hang someone for not knowing something,” said AccountingWEB regular and practice owner Sarah Douglas. “I never met a client that has not respected me when I have said 'I don’t know' but in our profession, it is not the same. If the profession was nicer to work in, I think both women and men would thrive in the business together more.”
The profession is changing
But change is happening – albeit gradually. “I’ve seen some small but significant changes over my 40 years of work, though sometimes I feel the changes are only just starting,” said the former Smith and Williamson partner Tina Riches. But, she added, “ there does now seem to be a will to change.”
Maybe it's because we work with a sector we see as quite forward thinking but I really think the world's changing for the better.
The signs are there. At 36% in 2017, figures from the FRC’s key facts and trends report showed a small increase in the percentage of female accountancy body members. The ACCA has the highest percentage of female members at 46% - a figure that it has maintained worldwide since 2014. At the other end of the scale, the ICAEW holds the lowest percentage of female members with 28%.
But it’s at the student level where the real growth is. In 2017 the average percentage of female students is at 49%, with all the professional bodies seeing an increase. Again, the ACCA is ahead at 57%. But even ICAEW’s student growth has increased to 43%.
The AAT has the biggest female representation of members at 64%, while 67% of AAT students are female (as outlined in the video below).
But the Books practice owner Zoe Whitman has seen this positive change. “I've been pleasantly surprised by how many clients we've won while I've been heavily pregnant. Maybe it's because we work with a sector we see as quite forward thinking (the lovely creative sector of glorious Bristol) but I really think the world's changing for the better.”
But people's attitude towards motherhood isn’t keeping pace with that change. When Whitman returned from maternity leave her employer at the time was far more accommodating than Pillow’s, but her former work’s agile working meant that if her child was sick she’d have to make up her hours another time.
Writing on AccountingWEB last year, she said: “The reality of being a parent in 2018 is that you parent very much as a nuclear family unit, you don’t have family down the road who can drop everything to help out so you can make your hours up at work, and the underlying point is that although my employer is flexible, I am not.”
Anecdotally speaking, though, there has been a slow realisation within the profession that flexible working is beneficial for accountants’ health and wellbeing. The output rather than input attitude is tearing down the old fashioned work to the grave mentality.
Having been that person working late until 10pm, small practice owner Susan Rahman never wanted her staff members to suffer the same. Rahman told AccountingWEB’s Practice Talk how her practice plans at the beginning of every quarter the work that needs doing, which then frees parents to schedule their work so they can pick up their kids during the middle of the day, go to school assemblies and sports days. “So as long as they achieve their targets for the month, I don't mind,” she said.
Why can't you be part-time?
Like Pillow, many women have gone on maternity leave and found it difficult to go back into the same role and juggle childcare without that flexibility. Without employers offering proper flexible and part-time working, Della Hudson also set up her own practice to get the balance she wanted for her children. “Having run a practice like this I feel that I’ve proved that it can work,” she said.
Cloud tools mean that you can work flexibly. Both Hudson and Pillow have demonstrated that you don’t have to be tied to an office and be looked over by a senior partner. But it’s a shame that for that balance to be achieved you have to set up your own business.
“In ten years we have come a long way from when I set up,” said Pillow. “It's massively different. It's much better. But I'm still hearing horror stories, particularly in practice saying you can't be part-time in practice. That's just wrong. I don't see why you cannot be part-time. That then pushes women to set up on their own, which is fine and great, but they should also choose to be employed part-time in practice.”
“It still shocks me that there are still recruitment agencies telling women that they cannot be part-time in practice because the hours are too long. That's wrong.”
Accountants for a better life
Pillow’s story is embodied in her firm’s pink Wellington boots branding. Seeing the boots places you immediately in her firm’s countryside setting. But the branding digs deeper than her Chippenham farm-base. The boots point to a more balanced way of life. It signifies the balance she and her team enjoys. It’s about being an accountant and a mother. Not two separate entities.
If you take a look at her website you’ll see the wellies nestled in the countryside grass. Surely an image that she’s often replicated with her children. A sign that she’s not tied to the desk. She’s able to holiday in the South of France and work remotely from there.
100 years after the ICAEW welcomed its first woman, Pillow’s “accountants for a better life” represents a balance in not just gender, but in life. “It's about making things better for everybody. That's for me, my staff, my clients. Accountants for a better life encompasses our whole being.”
Do you have an enlightened employment policy? Does your firm have a flexible framework that promotes equality? Why not enter the brand new Accounting Excellence Investing in People award and tell us about what your firm is doing.
About Richard Hattersley
Richard is AccountingWEB's Practice Editor. If you have any comments or suggestions for us get in touch.