International Women’s Day: Change is still needed in the profession

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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.”

Flexible working

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 Hattersley

Richard is AccountingWEB's Practice Editor. If you have any comments or suggestions for us get in touch.

Replies

Comments for this post are now closed.

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08th Mar 2019 11:39

It'll be a brave man who offers any comment beyond 'the party line'.
There is no debate, non-adherent views are, of course, stifled.

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08th Mar 2019 13:10

Sorry, just a quick question - when is the International Men's Day?

I am a great believer in equality so there must be a Men's day as well.

I would be grateful if Richard could let me know.

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to Trethi Teg
08th Mar 2019 14:11

Trethi Teg wrote:

Sorry, just a quick question - when is the International Men's Day?

I am a great believer in equality so there must be a Men's day as well.

I would be grateful if Richard could let me know.

Depending on who you ask:
"Every day is International Men's Day!"
or
"14 March"

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to Trethi Teg
08th Mar 2019 14:17

I sure can, Trethi Teg. International men's day is on 19 November.

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08th Mar 2019 13:56

What a great assignment Richard! Can I volunteer for this assignment next year?

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08th Mar 2019 14:10

I'm not a brave man but I do believe in reality checks. You have "womenly" women and "manly" men. Then you get all the grades inbetween culminating with men that want to be women and women that want to be men. All these entities think and work differently. So nothing in the workplace can be equal. What needs to be looked at is our social lack of values and mamby pamby outlook on too many important issues. This strive for artificially making up the numbers with ethnic, racial and sexual percentages will not work.

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08th Mar 2019 14:48

Highlighting the difference between different groups in society (as the many "representative" groups do) simply highlights the differences. When people see differences, that's when they start to discriminate based on those differences.

Make the differences invisible, and discrimination for any reason stops.

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to SteLacca
08th Mar 2019 15:22

I know what you mean but that simply doesn't work. You cannot MAKE the differences invisible. They are there and need to be dealt with. Like the difference in people, peoples attitudes are different. You have "extreme prejudice" to "anything goes" and then, of course, everything in between. My view has always been. Leave things alone and they always find a healthy balance. Start messing around and you'll end up with what we've got now. Striving for a perfect society has to be commended, however you won't get there by force.

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08th Mar 2019 15:55

Richard - thank you.

I am now going to mark that in my diary and shortly thereafter I look forward to reading your article on how it went.

I did look back but couldn't find your article in November 2018. Could you point me in the right direction please.

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to Trethi Teg
08th Mar 2019 16:09

Don't take it to heart, Richard - he is bitter and twisted over the loan charge and lashing out.

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to Trethi Teg
08th Mar 2019 16:22

Are there lots of men getting pregnant suffering from discrimination then?

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09th Mar 2019 08:09

Oh, hello Ann. Haven't had you trolling me recently. "Lashing out" is a bit of an exaggeration don't you think? I merely asked Richard to demonstrate that he is in favour of equality by reporting on both women's and men's events. If he doesn't then he is obviously a member of the PC brigade and eminently qualified to be employed by the BBC.

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11th Mar 2019 12:20

Ah gender pay gap reporting. A company I do some consulting for asked me to do their report last year.

They employ about 1000 staff and there was actually 2 women more than men employed so when reported the split was basically 50/50. Also about 80% of the staff are are paid around NLW or thereabouts. They also have one pay scale. So mean/medians etc were the same for both men and women. There was actually more women in senior roles than men and also the female managers were hitting more of the bonuses than the men so the report showed a positive gender pay gap for bonus side of things.

After checking the numbers this was filed, only to receive an email back stating that my results were statistically unlikely?

I replied that whilst they may be statistically unlikely, they were not impossible and explained that as 50% of the population was female that my results surely would be the most likely outcome. I also explained that as 80% of the workforce were paid around NLW that the mean and median would produce a figure close to the NLW.

He rang back (clearly drunk on his new found Hitler like powers) stating that if I did provide all of my workings that he would "name and shame me" in the press.

"Name and Shame us" for what exactly? paying everyone the same and having a team of female managers who were earning more bonuses than the men.
Not really going to ruin our reputation is it.

He was really obnoxious and I would be keen to know where a civil servant feels he has the power to try and destroy the reputation of a company at his own free will, based on predetermined statistics.

Anyway I sent him my spreadsheet with it all on, and asked once he checked it to send an apology and a draft press release showing the company was actually Gender Pay Gap positive.

He simply replied stating that figures were now accepted.

Deduce from that what you will but I suspect that probably 90% of businesses produced figures which were as they should be and nothing sensational in them, but the GPG people are looking for examples to "name and shame" to justify their own existence. The method of reporting is flawed and the numbers you report are pretty meaningless. Despite giving the opportunity to report something good, they did not, which should show what their true agenda is.

The reality is that talent rises to the top, its nonsense that a woman would be held back if she was good enough for the big chair.

These arguments that are running are 40 years out of date. I also find these women only groups to be pretty poor. I saw something on LInkedin where someone was trying to set up a "Women in accounting group"

Why would anyone want to join such a group. As a peer group it is excluding half the profession so by definition, it must be for people who cannot heck it in a mixed group, and will be sadly lacking balance in anything useful.

Successful people get on and do it, what they don't do is bleat on about hard life is.

If I was a young kid starting out and found my CV rejected from a firm of yummy mummies on account I was a boy, without looking at my qualifications I would be pretty miffed. I would also find a girl only firm a bit weird like something off Stepford wives.

My network group has recently had an influx of female members from a girl only group. The reason they joined us is that they heard we actually get [***] done and pass business amongst each other, where as the girl only group was a Prosecco fest where they just got [***] and started men hating but didn't actually pass any leads.

I am starting a group on linkedin, its called "Its still ok to be a bloke in accountancy"

All are welcome.

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to Glennzy
11th Mar 2019 14:26

Glennzy wrote:

Ah gender pay gap reporting. A company I do some consulting for asked me to do their report last year.


I'm clearly missing something here... the start of your post sounds like you are doing a report for a client who pays their staff equally, but by the end you are saying you were being threatened about the stats as if they related to your own business.

I'm not following...

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to Constantly Confused
11th Mar 2019 14:48

I not sure how you came to that conclusion, fortunately my own outfit is too small to warrant having to report.

It was the company I was reporting on (not mine) that was to be named and shamed unless I produced the workings for my submission on their behalf.

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to Glennzy
11th Mar 2019 15:15

Glennzy wrote:

I not sure how you came to that conclusion, fortunately my own outfit is too small to warrant having to report.


Glennzy wrote:

He rang back (clearly drunk on his new found Hitler like powers) stating that if I did provide all of my workings that he would "name and shame me" in the press.

"Name and Shame us" for what exactly? paying everyone the same and having a team of female managers who were earning more bonuses than the men.
Not really going to ruin our reputation is it.

So I should read "Me/Us/Our" as "My client/My client/My client's"?

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to Constantly Confused
11th Mar 2019 15:18

Yes sorry I have a non exec role with them so see myself as us or part of them.

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to Glennzy
11th Mar 2019 16:05

Glennzy wrote:

Yes sorry I have a non exec role with them so see myself as us or part of them.


Much clearer, thank you for explaining :)
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11th Mar 2019 12:58

The majority of responses have made me even happier to be quitting this 19th/20th century profession in a few weeks.

Clearly, as in so many areas of business, many people seem incapable of standing back and recognising either conscious or unconscious gender bias.

Business has still got a long way to go until women are viewed and treated equally and whilst not meddling, as some people see it, might still allow all talent to float to the top, if it hadn't been for Suffragettes I dare say we'd only just have celebrated votes for women.

As far as celebrating a Man's day in business, that's the equivalent of creating a "White lives matter" day for racial bias.

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to johnjenkins
11th Mar 2019 16:05

Let's not.

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