Women just don’t want to join big boys’ club

In 1998 Ruth Anderson of KPMG became the first female partner to be elected to the board of a Big Five accountancy firm. Five years on, the demise of Arthur Andersen has turned the Big Five into the Big Four and Ms Anderson is still the only woman on a big firm’s board.

Women, it is clear, are seriously under-represented in the management teams of Britain’s biggest accountancy firms.

One might be tempted to attribute this to the fact that the management teams of the big firms are quite small groups of people, and suggest that a wider look at the profession would show a fairer balance between the sexes. New research reveals that this is not the case — far from it.

Accountancy magazine’s annual league table of Britain’s 60 largest accountancy firms, published this week, reveals that only 438 of the 4,786 partners in the firms are female — about one in 11. That male partners outnumber females will come as no surprise to many, especially those who work in the firms. What is more surprising is the extent to which they do so — one in 11 is a tiny proportion by any standards. Accountancy is not, after all, a profession that is noted for its machismo, and the graduate intake of the firms divides roughly equally between the sexes.

The survey’s findings therefore imply the existence of a glass ceiling in the profession and pose some tough questions. Are female accountants getting stuck at manager level, or are they moving into industry to advance their careers? Are the firms structurally or culturally discriminatory towards women? In its quest to find answers, the magazine interviewed Ms Anderson and four other senior female partners from different firms. None of them agreed that a glass ceiling existed, but some common themes emerged that should give senior partners something to chew over in their boys’ club management meetings.

One is that women are put off by the male-dominated culture, rather than actively restricted by it.

Ms Anderson, for example, says that although in her view there is no intentional bias against women moving forward and being promoted, performance measurements tend to be biased towards male behaviour. Certain female talents, she adds, are maybe not being recognised and hence some women are “slipping the net”.

“I’ve never felt that big business is hostile to women, but at times it is wearing being in the minority,” she says, adding that the shortage of female role models could be putting off ambitious women from making the effort to climb the firms’ career ladders.

A couple of the partners said that they felt they had to fight harder to succeed in the early stages of their careers than their male peers. Andrea Grimshaw, London managing partner of the mid-tier firm Horwath Clark Whitehill, says she felt that, rather than working harder than the men, she had to go about things slightly differently. Rather than trying to be one of the lads, she recommends playing to female strengths.

“Women tend to be far better at listening, more intuitive, better at soft skills, and probably better team players,” she argues.

All five partners commented that the long and erratic hours demanded by senior roles in a profession where the client is king was a significant factor discouraging women, especially those with children, from taking top-level roles.

One — at the time, the lone female partner in her firm — recalled agonising over telling her fellow partners about her first pregnancy in 1987. The women say that a firm’s ability to be flexible at such times, perhaps allowing periods of part-time work, will encourage females to stay.

Accountancy firms therefore face a number of challenges if more women are to be encouraged to take up senior roles. They have to find ways of changing the perception — perhaps in some cases, the reality — that all the top positions are, quite literally, jobs for the boys. And they have to find ways of balancing the need to provide flexibility for their partners with the demands of their clients.

Not only would this lead to a fairer balance between the sexes, but it could save firms significant recruitment and training costs. Accountants are, after all, expensive to train and their skills and knowledge, particularly of clients’ businesses, are difficult to replace.

The firms are hardly in a position to waste resources. Accountancy magazine’s survey shows growth across the top 60 firms has stalled, with their total income, of £6.2 billion, virtually identical to last year’s survey. Most admit to having a tough time in a market where clients are getting increasingly cost-conscious and from which much of the lucrative deal driven consultancy work has disappeared.

A number of the larger firms have initiatives designed to entice more women to make the effort to climb the career ladder. KPMG, for example, has a women’s network, while Deloitte & Touche is developing a new initiative to ensure greater representation of women at the top of the firm.

Only time will tell whether these will change the present situation, and whether in five years’ time Ruth Anderson will still be the lone female member of a big firm’s board.

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