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Fiona Wilkinson on gender equality and women at work

23 March 2020: today, there is broader acceptance of women having senior roles in the workplace, but there are still challenges, writes ICAEW President Fiona Wilkinson

“Trust is vital to ensure positive change but cultural change is also about understanding it makes good business sense.”

Since I began my accountancy career, attitudes towards gender equality have changed dramatically. Today, there is broader acceptance of women having senior roles in the workplace. 
But there are still challenges.If you look at partners in accountancy practices, the vast majority are still male. While nearly all FTSE 350 companies now have Boards which are 30% female, their roles tend to be as NEDs or HR directors with very few being C-suite directors.

Last year the Financial Reporting Council, the profession’s watchdog, found that the vast majority of partner level roles were held by white men. Just 17% of women are partners despite women making up 46% of manager level roles at accountancy firms. Change should be happening faster, especially with the technology available to enable remote and flexible working, which has been proven to help women retain jobs and move up to senior positions.

The resistance is deep-rooted and not simply from men. Yahoo’s former Chief Executive, Marissa Mayer, infamously banned home-working in 2013 when she returned from a minimal two-week maternity leave. And it is not just younger women who want to work flexibly. Men and women of all ages also want to take advantage of the flexibility employers should be offering. 

Trust is vital to ensure positive change in the workplace continues but cultural change is also about understanding that it makes good business sense. Not just for the billions that it is estimated that the economy could benefit from with greater female participation but also from better staff retention, increased loyalty and improved reputation.

According to PwC’s Women in Work study, if the UK matched Sweden’s level of female employment (69% v the UK’s 57%), the benefit to the economy would be £178bn. And the study also found that closing the gender pay gap across OECD countries could increase GDP by $2trn.

If we can ensure women rise into senior roles, then the UK gender pay gap should decrease. However, the reasons for the pay gap are actually representative of a power gap. In society women remain the main carers and until that is resolved women won’t be able to avoid working part-time, resulting in lower income .
There is growing evidence that shows diverse, mixed gender teams make better decisions. Mixed boards with a diverse range of people tend to be more questioning and more challenging, resulting in better decision-making and improved outcomes. 

However, if women are offered a partnership or a directorship when they are in their 30s, they often feel unable to take on such responsibility and the time commitment if they have young children. These women can then get written off. Our thinking around this must change.

Women aged 50+ can be undervalued and invisible in the workplace. If women are having children in their 30s, they are probably going to be unlikely to want to take on senior roles until they reach 50. As the retirement age rises there should be opportunities for women in their 50s to step up. They could then have a fulfilling career potentially lasting another 20 years, if they so wish.

Fiona Wilkinson
ICAEW President