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How well is accountancy performing on gender equality?

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 09 Jun 2022

As leading lights of the sector are named among the UK’s Top 50 Employers for Women, we look at what the profession is doing right on gender equality – and why there’s still more to do.

Four leading accountancy firms have appeared in this year’s edition of The Times’s Top 50 Employers for Women list – an initiative the paper runs in partnership with Business in the Community (BITC). 

Published on 23 May, this year’s list included KPMG UK, PwC, Deloitte and Grant Thornton UK for their strides on gender equality. Two of those firms immediately issued statements outlining the steps they had taken to provide nurturing environments for women. 

Deloitte said it had given its people the choice of when and where to work; introduced new policies such as an Allyship Toolkit to promote advocacy across its workforce, and launched its Future Leaders Programme to boost representation of women and underrepresented ethnic groups in leadership roles.

Meanwhile, Grant Thornton strategy uses HR data to steer targeted action, sponsorship and development, underpinned by a culture of agile working and flexibility supported by 

employee networks and an internal engagement and education drive. Like Deloitte, it also encourages male allies to discuss and promote positive change.

Blurred boundaries

But across the profession as a whole, there is little scope for complacency. Announcing the Top 50, BITC Gender Equality Director Katy Neep said that following the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on women’s careers, the cost-of-living crisis had shed light on how much further employers have to go on gender equality. Patchiness on equality ranges across the entire UK employment spectrum, Neep says. 

ICAEW COO Sharron Gunn – who has examined such hurdles in her work with the Women in Leadership Initiative – says women in accountancy continue to face significant equality challenges: “There are still issues around career breaks, when women step out of the profession to raise children, or to be caregivers. 

“Research tells us that the COVID-19 pandemic has seen many women not only take on additional caring, but also further domestic responsibilities. Those breaks and additional responsibilities can set them back. There’s a long-hours culture – not so much in business, but in practice. Accountancy is quite similar to law in that respect. And that’s tricky if you have a family,” Gunn adds.

On the other hand, COVID-19’s effects on the pursuit of equality are not uniformly negative, Gunn notes. “Mothers’ experiences of work at the height of the pandemic have helped to change attitudes and shift policy,” she says. “Some firms are exploring options such as term-time-only or school-hours contracts. You don’t have to go into the office every day, and school runs and after-school childcare can be easier to manage.”

Grant Thornton UK Board Sponsor for Gender Fiona Baldwin agrees: “The blurring of lines between home and work caused by lockdowns has rapidly accelerated a change of attitudes that was already under way before the pandemic began,” she says. As such, there is now a “universal acknowledgement” that freedom of choice and inclusive working conditions not only promote wellbeing, but foster productivity.

Indeed, the visibility in the workplace of people’s personal commitments has now been normalised, Baldwin believes. “Everyone is juggling a range of different responsibilities so employers that continue to support balance by allowing their people to be honest about the demands on their time are going to be the most attractive.”

Gap in understanding

Since 2017, one much-discussed means for measuring inequality in organisations and sectors is mandatory gender pay gap reporting. However, following the COVID-triggered pause on enforcement for the 2019 to 2020 reporting year, discourse around that statutory instrument remains muted at best. So, how effective could it really be for flagging up pay inequalities in accountancy?

As CEO of data-driven pay gaps consultancy Spktral, Anthony Horrigan takes a sceptical view of the reporting legislation as it currently stands – and particularly how the resulting data is perceived and shared. His assessment is that requiring firms to comply is not the same as compelling them to create viable action plans and make tangible progress.

“Most press releases and articles focus on the pay gap percentage: the least-revealing of all metrics,” he says. “Organisations don’t have a single gap that can be easily explained with just one figure, they typically have pay gaps – plural.”

Horrigan notes that real insights are found in pay-quarter data. “If we look at the overall ratio of men to women,” he explains, “then split a company’s pay range into four equal chunks, we would see a different ratio of female to male staff at each level. Those imbalance ratios are the pay gaps: the under- or overrepresentation of one gender.”

Intersectional analysis, Horrigan points out, is also a significant – and often ignored – factor. “For example,” he says, “perhaps a glowing picture in your Liverpool office is suppressing a dire situation in your London branch. So, boiling the ‘gap’ down to mean and median doesn’t provide enough granular detail or insight to properly understand where your problems lie – or how to start addressing them. This should not be about reporting numbers, but encouraging meaningful change.”

Baldwin notes that Grant Thornton is going further than the statutory requirements by volunteering pay data related to additional characteristics, such as ethnicity, as part of its broader diversity and inclusion mission. In gender terms, she explains, her firm has an even male-to-female ratio up to management level, where female representation begins to decrease and a pay gap opens up.

“The driving factors behind low representation of women in senior roles are complex and deep rooted,” Baldwin points out. “While it has had some advantages, pay gap reporting alone is not able to tell the whole story – or truly reflect the effort and changes being made by organisations on this agenda.”

However, Baldwin says, the war for talent and employees’ demands for greater equality of opportunity remain key drivers for greater action. In that context, by providing an external representation of a firm’s commitment in this field, gender pay gap reporting “can provide clarity to future employees as to the progress being made by the organisation they are considering joining.”

Enabling change

Gunn takes a similar stance on working hours. “If lots of people are tired or feel the competing pull of home-life responsibilities, quality and opportunity can diminish. In that sense, we’re not unique as a profession. But younger generations of women are demanding a far better model of work-life balance than we’ve been willing to tolerate in the past. That’s going to drive change: flexibility as a prerequisite for retention.”

For Baldwin, it is vital for accountancy to safeguard the momentum of its achievements to date. “There is still much more that businesses could be doing to ensure that we not only maintain this growth but accelerate it. Now is not the time for complacency.”

In particular, Baldwin says continued focus on enabling cultural and societal change around flexible working for all genders is needed. “Further research is required to investigate and address the long-term effects of the pandemic on women’s careers. And while progress on this front is clearly under way, there still needs to be greater accountability at board level for lasting, sustainable change.”

Above all, Baldwin says, organisations must foster a culture of inclusion to empower underrepresented talent and create an environment for the diversity of thought that will benefit productivity and bottom-line performance. That culture, she adds, must be a strategic cornerstone – supported by investment from boards and robust governance around data to ensure shifts continue to occur.

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