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When Chartered Accountants Save the World

Chartered accountants can unlock the potential of gender equity

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 08 Jul 2021


The pandemic has exacerbated gender inequality, but data is one tool that can help organisations chart a course to improvement.

At first glance, attempts to tackle gender inequality in business have ramped up in recent years – from heavyweight government-backed reviews to the introduction of gender pay gap reporting and multiple taskforces. And yet, more than 50 years since the introduction of the Equal Pay Act 1970, gender equality – most notably in terms of pay and access to the top jobs – remains a work in progress.

Gender diversity across UK business — or rather the lack of it — was flagged up as an uncomfortable reality back in 2018, as many of those companies forced to disclose their gender pay gaps were, for the first time, faced with the true extent of pay disparity between men and women in their organisations. For many, it’s fair to say the results were at best disappointing and at worst an embarrassment.

More recently, as organisations were starting to make tangible progress on some of the imbalances they had unearthed, the pandemic served as a gender inequity double whammy. In many cases, it has reinforced the huge inequalities between the sexes that continue to plague both society and business, but it has also been a huge distraction to some of the good initiatives under way.

McKinsey analysis published in September last year found that women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable during the coronavirus pandemic than men’s jobs. Women make up 39% of global employment but account for 54% of overall job losses as of May 2020. At the same time, they are disproportionately more likely to bear the burden of unpaid care and childcare, which has risen in the pandemic. 

More than simply a blow to women and societal progress, this is also an economic and business own goal. McKinsey estimates that global GDP growth could be $1trn lower in 2030 than it would be if women’s unemployment simply tracked that of men in each sector. According to the government’s gender equality roadmap published in 2019, reducing gender gaps in labour market participation, wages, and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) qualifications could increase the size of the UK economy by around 2% or £55bn by 2030.

While developments such as mandatory gender pay gap reporting have forced a step-change in the focus on equality and inclusion across all industries, this in itself is not enough. At an organisational level, understanding the scale and extent of the problem has got to be the starting point. 

This is where chartered accountants have an invaluable role to play in collating and interrogating the data to produce the proverbial marker in the sand and help organisations chart a course to improvement. 

Joanna Abeyie MBE is Managing Director of diversity and inclusion consultancy Blue Moon and was instrumental in establishing the Creative Diversity All-Party Parliamentary Group with Baroness Deborah Bull CBE, of which she is Joint Secretary. Abeyie, a Non-Executive Director for Investors in People, and the first and only Black Trustee and Director of The Media Society, agrees that it’s time to move away from assumptions about the dearth of gender diversity in your business, and base strategies on hard facts and data. Chartered accountants hold the key to unlocking that potential, she says. 

“We’re in danger of people focusing more on what these issues look like rather than getting to the heart of it and thinking about why people behave in a certain way,” Abeyie says. The cultural shift required for diversity strategies to flourish is less about learning to be politically correct and instead having uncomfortable conversations about why gender bias exists, she adds.  

“If you interrogated the data enough, you could identify down to the teams in which some of these patterns and biases lie. Only then can you really tackle things at the root rather than sticking at blue sky thinking about why some of these problems exist. Typically, we blame gender inequity on women taking career breaks to have children or needing more flexible working hours. But there’s usually so much more to it.”

“With gender pay gap reporting, there is so much that isn’t taken into consideration. Intersectionality is really important,” Abeyie urges. “For example, the treatment beyond pay equity of a disabled woman compared with an able-bodied woman, or the treatment of a Black woman compared with a White woman or a Muslim woman.” 

Abeyie also stresses that gender diversity must be an ongoing process that requires analysis of all the data underpinning your behaviours, policies and processes – from the first interaction with prospective job candidates to career progression at the most senior levels. “We’re no longer in a place where sexism is always overt. It can be that there are structures and processes in place that keep these inequities active,” Abeyie adds. “You have to track it from cradle to grave, because that’s when you really start to understand some of the specific nuances.”

Dr Jane Berney, Manager of ICAEW’s Business Law, Tax, Ethics & Law Group, believes chartered accountants can add real value by explaining trends, what the numbers mean, and the financial impact on the business. “If people understand it, there’s less shrugging of shoulders and people can start to look at this issue more intelligently,” Berney says. “The pay gap is one element of gender diversity. We need to look at the issue holistically.”

Berney also believes that attempts to tackle gender diversity have reached an impasse, not helped by the suspension of gender pay gap reports last year. “Pandemic or no pandemic, I think we would have got to this point anyway because people don’t know what to do. It can’t be a tick-box exercise. We need to reinvigorate the debate – the pandemic might have made things worse, but it’s all part of the same problem.”