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Partnerships urged to ‘make space for mothers’

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 11 May 2021

The partnership model remains skewed against mothers and caregivers rising up the ranks unless they have a partner or husband who assumes the lion’s share of the child caring responsibilities, new research has found.

New research conducted by Queen Mary, University of London among 60 women partners in firms across the UK and Germany set out to identify the challenges women faced in moving up the professional ranks when they become mothers.

The long hours culture and a lack of support to help women juggle work with caring responsibilities was a deal breaker for many, the research found. Half of UK respondents with children were married to men who were the primary carers of their children.

Dr Patrizia Kokot-Blamey, a Lecturer in Organisation Studies at Queen Mary, University of London and Co-Director of the Centre for Research in Equality and Diversity, who conducted the research, said: “Most women won’t necessarily have partners who will be willing to take a step back to become primary care takers. If we want to significantly increase female representation at senior level, we will have to create conditions where women and men are able to arrange their life around care and work.”

Kokot-Blamey said firms had a leadership role to play in providing more flexibility for mothers and caregivers to juggle their parenting and work responsibilities. “Otherwise, the pool of those who are willing to forgo their engagement with their children to make partnership is going to shrink further, especially after this pandemic and the additional burdens of combining work with home-schooling.”

The experience of working during the pandemic has set the cause back further with many of the traditional support structures falling away, Kokot-Blamey warned. “Firms need to recognise the double burden that many parents have been carrying over this pandemic.”

While the larger firms have established maternity and shared parental leave provisions, that is often not the case in many smaller firms and moving to partnership means becoming self-employed with little guidance on what might constitute appropriate leave arrangements at that level.

“It puts women in a position where they are not necessarily yet mothers but had to negotiate that leave during contract negotiations, putting them in an awkward position. And there’s very little guidance for either women or firms on how to approach this when moving to self-employment and partnership,” Kokot-Blamey said.

Despite calls by regulator the FRC for the accounting profession to prioritise increased diversity at the most senior levels of management, growth in the representation of women at partner level has been disappointingly slow. The FRC’s Key Facts and Trends in the Accountancy Profession report for 2019 reveals that, for the first time in five years, women now make up 50% of all students at the professional bodies and 37% of members, yet at the largest firms only just over 20% of partner positions are held by women, compared with around 17% in 2007. 

“If we don’t make more space for women to combine motherhood with work then that figure is unlikely to increase,” Kokot-Blamey added. Similarly, attempts to address the gender pay gap at firms would stall until more family-friendly ways of working that favoured women became the norm, she said. 

Bearing in mind that four out of five of us become parents, rather than expect people to arrange work so it doesn’t inconvenience clients, we need to make space for mothering and for these mothers to come through, Kokot-Blamey urged. “What firms can do is give these women extra resources to allow them to acknowledge that they’re juggling work with caring responsibilities for a relatively short time in their lives and recognise that to help you work to your potential, you might need a little bit of respite.”

“70% of mothers are working mothers, juggling work and children and pretending we’re not having to do this. As women, many of us have to mother as if we don’t work and work as if we don’t have children – and these requirements are simply incompatible.” 

Mothering in accounting: Feminism, motherhood, and making partnership in accountancy in Germany and the UK