Women in Accounting: Still a Long Way to Go

Celebrated on March 8 this year, International Women’s Day (IWD) is now 100 years old; this global day celebrating the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future first began in 1911.

IWD is an official holiday in many countries around the world from China to Russia to Ukraine to Vietnam. The tradition sees men honouring their mothers, wives, girlfriends, and colleagues with flowers and small gifts.

For its centenary year, the theme for IWD 2011 is “Equal access to education, training and science and technology: Pathway to decent work for women.”

This theme resonates clearly with ACCA (the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) because our aim is to provide opportunity and access to people of ability around the world, supporting our members throughout their careers in accounting, business and finance – whether they are women or men. We also work to promote diversity in business at all levels of seniority as a way of enhancing business performance.

Looking globally, there are more women in the boardroom than in 1911, greater equality in legislative rights and more women acting as role models in every aspect of life than 100 years ago. It could be thought that women have gained true equality.

However, the fact is that many women are still not paid equally to that of their male colleagues; women are still not present in equal numbers in business or politics, with many women finding it difficult to set up in business. And as the IWD website says, globally, women’s education and health is worse than that of men. There are still equality barriers that women face on a daily basis.

Making Improvements 

The latest available figures from 2010 show that women make up an increasing proportion of new entrants to the accountancy profession. Globally, women make up almost 50% of the accountancy trainee intake. Over half of members and students of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) are women.

So have all the problems been solved? Two years ago, ACCA Singapore worked with Robert Half International to understand the role of women in the financial services sector, to gauge their concerns and ambitions for the future.

The findings still resonate for many two years on:

  • 58% of respondents said that work-life balance was the top priority for female accounting and finance professionals;
  • 68% expected to progress in their career in the next five years;
  • 45% did not think they would reach a senior management position, such as a Directorship, within finance and accounting
  • And lastly, only 49% of participants indicated that their organisation had a formal equal opportunities/diversity policy.

These findings exist partly because the upper levels of the profession are still often dominated by men, according to a report by the global online news site AccountingWeb. In both the UK and the US, two of the world's most advanced countries, only 20% of senior jobs are held by women.

Last year, ACCA produced a report called Equality: Women in Financial Services. It included nine recommendations, from advising that women should be provided with training in leadership, influencing and negotiating skills to equip them for senior management roles to the need for organisations to build support programmes and provide access to role models, networks and mentors to help female colleagues overcome obstacles and to succeed.

Evidence proves that companies need gender-balanced senior management teams to participate in the global market strategically and wisely. For example, many studies confirm that men and women bring different and complementary sensibilities and leadership styles to the table. 

Economic Opportunity?

Away from the finance profession, women’s obstacles to economic opportunity are a massive hurdle to overcome. This can be seen clearly with research from the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) report called Women’s Economic Opportunity: A new global index and ranking.

This groundbreaking report was produced to gain a better understanding of the factors that influence women’s economic opportunity. This has been done by creating an index, the first of its kind to identify the laws, regulations, practices, customs and attitudes that enable women to participate in the workforce.

The EIU report also looks at labour policy and practice; access to finance; education and training; women’s legal and social status and the general business environment – and how these factors affect women’s ability to seek opportunities.

Measuring 113 economies the overall results show that Sweden, Belgium and Norway occupy the first three places of the index. Hong Kong performs best in the Asia region and Mauritius is Africa’s best finisher in the index.

What of Singapore? It ranks 34th in the world, sandwiched between Poland and the Republic of Korea. Looking at its overall position in the Asia region, it ranks 4th, alongside Japan and Hong Kong. And when it comes to education and training opportunities for women, Singapore does well, coming in at second place.

The EIU report also reminds readers that when it comes to setting up in business, many women face greater barriers than men. For those women who are not able to make it in the formal workplace, starting their own business may be the best option open to them.

The truth is that just as women are underrepresented in the workplace, they are also less likely than men to start their own business. And this is virtually true in all economies. Research, including that by the EIU, points to a number of factors why this may be the case; from cultural norms and customs to general attitudes to risk and fear of failure.

Increasing the rate of female entrepreneurship could be a key contributor to economic growth, something that’s high on government agendas across the world. But the gains could be beyond economic. Indeed, research on women development indicates women are more likely to share their gains in education, health, and resources with members of their families and their communities at large.

The challenge ahead 

For ACCA, transparency is the key to overcoming gender inequalities especially in financial services. To allow for greater transparency, ACCA recommends that companies should routinely report gender-disaggregated HR data.

We also recognise an urgent need for standardised reporting of key performance indicators (KPIs). This should form part of the business plan and also be reported openly through an integrated report or CSR report.

Women are not one homogeneous group and the challenges of finding appropriate policy towards women’s enterprise has to be seen in the context of the fact that there is no 'one size fits all' policy that will work for what is actually half of the potential labour force. As policy and support measures are reviewed, this should be remembered.

Encouraging women into senior management positions is a crucial part of the global drive to improve equality between men and women. Professional accountancy offers a diverse and rewarding career; it is a pathway to more than ‘decent’ work for women, and indeed for men.

However, more than all of these we need to link the debate to doing better business. By promoting diversity in the workplace, including ensuring women have equal opportunities to achieve senior roles in business, ACCA believes that business performance can be enhanced and enriched for the better, here in Singapore and also around the world.

About the Author

Helen Brand is chief executive of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA).

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