Earlier in May, City AM published the Power Women 100 list, celebrating the city’s most inspiring women and their success in the city. While there are more women than men at starting level in finance and more specifically in the accounting industry, that trend reverses itself from mid-level management and onwards. Although there is no legal requirement to enforce more diversity in senior positions, the gender balance is becoming an important part of the agendas for professional services firms and in-house tax departments.
Sharron Gunn joined the ICAEW in 2001 as head of development and since 2012 has been an executive director of its commercial team. Sharron is on the Power Women 100 list, she is passionate about gender balance and is a regular public speaker on the subject.
Can you please explain the reasons why you have been regularly recognised for your work in terms of diversity and gender balance?
Sharron Gunn – Diversity and gender balance has always been an issue of interest to me. When I first qualified there were no role models, nobody to look up to and no female partners. I have looked at diversity in the accountancy profession for the last five years, and I am glad to say the profession is now in a very different place.
In my capacity at the ICAEW I have overseen the development of a number of initiatives to support gender equality in the workforce. Our ‘Women in Leadership’ and ‘Back to Work’ programmes are designed for women returning to the workforce and to provide advice, networking opportunities CPD programmes that give women opportunities to get ahead. Beyond this ICAEW has a focus on developing our members throughout their careers through the use of mentoring schemes, which I believe has a real impact.
In 2015, ICAEW submitted comments to the Women and Equalities Select Committee exploring the gender pay gap, and I later gave oral evidence to the Select Committee on women in executive management. Earlier this year alongside Seema Malhotra MP, I contributed to a joint Young Fabian and Labour in the City publication on women in financial services. It is an important time for the diversity agenda – there’s a real appetite for change across professions and I’m excited to be part of it.
Has there been progress for women working in the accounting industry in the last years?
SG – There is undoubtedly a long way to go to gender equality, but significant progress has been made across most industries. The number of women on Boards in FTSE companies has doubled in the last four years, and the Government’s initiative to publish the gender pay gap is a step in the right direction.
In Chartered Accountancy, employers have always been open to non-graduates’ routes, but in recent years have started to move away from graduate only careers. Access has been opened up through school leaver programmes, apprenticeship schemes and blind recruitment. In terms of progress, firms are looking at the pipeline and every shortlist has a proportionate percentage of females on it versus their workforce, which is slowly causing the numbers to shift.
You can’t, however, evaluate success or failure alone on how many women are recruited. Businesses need to reflect on how they create and encourage work environments that support career growth for women and men, which involves raising aspirations and considering childcare responsibilities that disproportionally affect women.
Are there any legal requirements for employers in terms of gender balance?
SG – At present there are no legal requirements for employers to deliver or publish information on gender balance. In 2017 this will change when the Government will introduce gender pay gap reporting for organisations with over 250 employees. It is important to remember that whilst creating policy to encourage women into businesses is a vital first step, the Government can’t legislate to change attitudes. Economic arguments and practical solutions that highlight the benefits for employers are also very essential in generating change and creating the incentive for women to remain in, and return to business.
How are employers enforcing gender balance nowadays?
SG – Feedback from our members shows that the long-hours-culture acts as a deterrent to women entering the profession. Agile and part-time working that allows employees to achieve a better balance between their career and other commitments, for example raising a family, is therefore vital. In the accountancy sector, there has been a drive to challenge traditional work place cultures by measuring performance on results not hours worked. Providing greater choice over when, where and how to work by offering a blend of formal, flexible working arrangements and informal day-to-day practices means women are not faced with a choice between family and their career.
Mentoring, sponsorship and peer to peer support networks are also an effective way of encouraging women into different roles and should be championed by senior male and female employees. An increasing number of our member firms are running sponsorship programmes as well as mentoring schemes.
Back-to-work programmes designed for women returning to the workforce providing advice, networking opportunities and CPD programmes help give women opportunities to get ahead and encourage them back into the workforce.
Do you think there is still much to do?
SG – Cultural change will take time, but greater recognition of the added value women bring to businesses is crucial in helping women realise their potential and changing workplace culture. A recent Mckinsey study identified that gender-diverse companies are 15% more likely to outperform their competitor’s. And this makes sense; not taking advantage of half the potential talent pool or alienating half of a business’s customer base makes no business sense.
Publishing information and encouraging discussion is important in tackling differences between the treatment of men and women – because it is accountability that drives change and commitment, and data that helps people accept a problem
As Chartered Accountants, we are used to measuring success and failures. Gender balance should not be exempt, and with large businesses expected to report on gender pay differences next year, ICAEW urges organisations to review how they measure diversity and inclusion to help correct gender discrepancies.