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Women empowerment AccountingWEB Shattering glass ledgers: Women in accounting
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Shattering glass ledgers: Women in accounting

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To celebrate International Women’s Day Molly Macfarlane speaks with Heather Smith about her experiences as a woman in the profession and the challenges she had to overcome. 

8th Mar 2024
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This year’s focus of International Women’s Day on 8 March is “Invest in women: accelerate progress”, highlighting the critical need for creating inclusive environments and investing in women’s empowerment. 

Heather Smith FABFor Heather Smith (left), an accountant at ANISE Consulting, accounting was always something she wanted to get into: “I realised that the profession could open up the opportunity to think, work and travel.” Smith began working as a fixed asset auditor at an aerospace company and then moved to a fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) company where she was responsible for analysing a $45m portfolio of private-label goods.

The next 10 years saw her as a global accounting superstar, working overseas in Europe, North America and Asia, then she returned to Australia in 2000. “Now my practice fits in my handbag. I can be anywhere and my clients can be anywhere,” Smith said.

Smith, an upcoming speaker at the Festival of Accounting & Bookkeeping (FAB), spoke to AccountingWEB about her career path, recounting the barriers she faced as a woman in accounting and how it has shaped her success today.

Can you share a memorable experience from your career that you are proud of? 

I have always had the mindset not to wait for opportunities to come to me and I think that has contributed to my success. 

In 2022 I was extraordinarily grateful and privileged to be in a position to attend all three Xerocons in London, New Orleans and Sydney (and survived intact!). It’s a bucket-list item that any accounting-tech-loving person never expects to do. I connected with amazing people, heard inspiring stories, built networks and nurtured relationships. 

Being the outlier I am, I do many things because of an intense need to do something and figure it out afterwards. I started on that epic journey with my cup empty and ended with my cup overflowing. 

I’m hopeful and positive for the future. Many people have told me they’ve been inspired by my travels, and my response is to make your own magic happen. There are lots of exciting conferences happening overseas this year. 

I’m writing this, about to board a plane to attend and speak at the Festival of Accounting & Bookkeeping happening in Birmingham on 13 and 14 March. Come say hi and make some memorable experiences together.

Have you faced any barriers throughout your career and how did you address them?

For many years my local UK accounting association events were exclusively held in a men’s club in Brisbane, Australia. As a woman, I needed permission from a man to enter the establishment. I’d arrived at the venue and outside the reception door was a small circular sofa. I’d pace around, assessing who was in the reception area. I would try to build up the courage to go through the humiliating process of being accepted into a men’s club. Once inside I’d walk up the wooden stairs, and try to calm down. Entering a room full of men was so daunting.

Over the years, I complained multiple times but nothing changed. I had to switch tactics and tackle it from a branding issue. The venue did change after that conversation but I shouldn’t have even had to have changed tactics. 

Even writing and reliving this is upsetting and exhausting. A culture that is accepting of that environment takes a long time to recalibrate to an inclusive culture. 

Do you think the accounting profession has evolved in terms of gender inclusivity?

I’m not sure if my younger self saw the issues, it’s only as I’ve climbed the ladder I’ve seen the lack of equality, which is supported by every data set and survey published globally. 

Many things still need to be done, but I’ll pick one, which is that organisations of a certain size, should consider a chief diversity officer – someone who can ensure an organisation’s values align with diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). But sadly, saying that – and I don’t know why it happens – frequently and bizarrely you find the worst perpetrator wants those roles. 

Can you share any experiences or initiatives that promote gender diversity?

Along with Alex Falcon Huerta, founder of Soaring Falcon Accountancy and an upcoming speaker at FAB, and Sarah Lawrance, founder of Hot Toast, we formed the Global Women’s Accounting Influencers. 

Sadly it formed from a place of violence and sexual harassment at professional conferences, from a place of men forcing themselves into situations with us, when we had clearly said no, from men telling us we cannot sit on boards. 

Over many Singapore slings and expressing our stories of frustrations, we saw an opportunity to create an inclusive community that specifically catered to the unique challenges and aspirations of women in accounting. Our founders, each a trailblazer in their own right, brought together their diverse expertise, experiences and passion to create a space where women in accounting could thrive. 

Have you seen that photo of the sheer joy of Jamie Lee Curtis cheering Michelle Yeoh as she wins a Golden Globe? That’s the vibe of the community. Cheerleaders, smart successful women, who are not afraid to have big conversations about where we find ourselves.

For myself, creating and immersing myself in this community has enabled me to unpack and crystalise some issues, and determine smarter ways forward.

Shirley Chisholm said: “If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” Or build a whole new table! 

What advice would you give to women who would like to pursue a career in accounting? 

Accounting is a wonderful profession and lends itself to a fabulous, interesting and flexible career. I’d encourage women to stay informed, network with allies, pursue pay transparency, and look for work opportunities in modern award-winning businesses that offer a good work-life balance. 

Heather Smith will be speaking at a number of FAB’s battle panels. Get your free ticket here and listen to her expertise on 13 and 14 March at the NEC in Birmingham. 

If you’re interested in hearing more about women in accounting, FAB has a session dedicated to just that. Meet a range of women speakers, have a chat and say hi!