Women have been chipping away at the glass ceiling in the accounting industry for decades and the cracks are starting to show. Today, more than 50 per cent of accountants in Australia are women. According to CPA Australia, smart, determined women have “fought a successful battle” to be recognised as accounting professionals, with its female membership more than doubling from 22 per cent in 1994 to 49 per cent in 2018.
What has helped women enter accounting, and progress?
- A culture shift in accountancy firms
Over the past decade, there has been a concerted effort to address the issues of diversity and inclusion in the accounting and finance industry. Many firms have formally examined their hiring practices and workplace cultures to attract and retain more women.
There have also been grassroots efforts to get young girls interested in finance and financial services, such as F3, a program designed to encourage young women to join the financial services industry and create generational change.
- The ability to carve out a career path
More women are realising the benefits of a career in accounting, with opportunities to work in different industries and the ability to pursue a more entrepreneurial approach to their careers. Some women have used accounting as a springboard to launch their own businesses, aligned with their goals and values.
Take, for example, Ignition’s Top 50 Women in Accounting winner Karla Hourigan. After working in the field for nine years, Ms Hourigan went on to co-found MAD Wealth, which provides accounting services to businesses making a positive change in the world.
With demand for accountants on the rise, there are more secure and competitive opportunities for women to carve out their own career paths with confidence.
- The rise of flexible working
Even before the pandemic, many firms were adopting flexible working arrangements thanks to increasing investment in automation and communication technologies. Now, with greater demands for flexibility and an ongoing shortage of talent, accountants have more bargaining power over where and when they work.
For many women, a culture of flexibility has enabled them to balance work and caregiving responsibilities.
Have things changed quickly enough to achieve equity?
In short, no.
Despite so many women joining the profession, we are yet to see equal representation at a leadership level, with women only holding 32.5 per cent of management positions in Australian accounting firms.
Today, male accountants out-earn their female colleagues by an average of $50,000 per year in Australia.
One of the reasons is that women put their careers on pause to have children and are set back from their colleagues when they do return to work. In many instances, women decide to come back part-time (or not at all) as a result of the rising costs of childcare.
Greater diversity and inclusion doesn’t simply happen overnight; accounting firms need to prioritise hiring, supporting and promoting women in senior positions and leadership roles. There is a mounting business case for diversity too, with more diverse firms reporting increased profitability, productivity and innovation.
Some areas for focus
- Start at the hiring stage
There is still room for improvement when it comes to attracting female talent. Leaders should start at the hiring stage and work closely with their HR teams, hiring leads or recruitment partners to communicate their workforce diversity goals and plans, and implement bias-free recruiting practices.
This can be done through diverse sourcing channels, such as industry associations, and ensuring there is minority representation in the recruitment team to build and assess a pool of candidates.
It’s also important to remove any subtle gendered or biased terms from job ads that could dissuade women from applying.
- Build fair and flexible work arrangements
While remote or hybrid work arrangements have many benefits, there can also be drawbacks if not managed properly. For instance, the formation of “insider” and “outsider” groups (those who choose to work from home versus those who work at the office), diminished work/life balance and increased burnout.
It’s important to ensure there are clear policies that encourage both men and women to work flexibly, and proper processes in place to track career advancement, promotion and pay rise to ensure equity.
- Offer parental leave support
Women who take career breaks to have children should be able to return to the office without fear of being penalised. Firms should prioritise policies and practices to help these women seamlessly transition back into the workforce, including childcare support to ease stress, or offering paid parental leave to promote shared caregiving.
Deloitte, for example, offers 18 weeks of paid leave to new parents, regardless of gender. This leave can be taken over the course of three years in order to suit each family’s unique needs.
In addition, parents returning to work are given an additional support payment for a period of 12 months, and will also see their performance targets revised to better support their transition back to the office.
We’re at a major turning point in the accounting and finance industry, with more women entering and progressing in the profession. But there is still more work to be done. By creating policies and processes that are flexible, inclusive and equitable, we can pave the way for the next generation of female leaders.
Francesca Deery, global vice-president of people and culture at Ignition