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International Women’s Day: ICAEW’s inspirational leaders

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 07 Mar 2023

How much progress has been made on gender equality in the profession? Women leading ICAEW give their views, discuss the biggest issues facing accountancy and offer their career advice.

Sharron Gunn, ICAEW COO

Are we making progress on gender equality?

Things have moved on a lot since I joined the profession some 30 or so years ago. Today, the accountancy profession is quite a comfortable place for females – although we still don’t have enough women at the top. Part of the problem is that it’s a profession that can demand long hours and that can be a barrier to women who are still the primary carers in most households. Technology and the experience of COVID-19 have facilitated new ways of working and increased flexibility, but it’s still a work in progress.

Why is diversity and inclusion such an important part of ICAEW’s strategy? 

Most businesses are very reliant on people and ours is no different. Attracting and retaining the best talent is a very important agenda item for boards. We have got to be relevant to our members and we have got to provide value. The days are gone where people will just join a professional body – we have to stay relevant to our members to remain current. 

What career advice would you pass on? 

If you have organisations full of people that are all the same, they're never going to be successful. The best organisations are truly diverse. No matter where you are in your career, authenticity is key. I would just encourage people to believe in themselves and to be themselves, and to recognise their value. 

Andrea Cook, Director, CPD and Events Programming

What challenges have you faced as a woman in the profession? 

In my experience, accountancy is an inclusive profession and being a woman, in my case with two young children, has not held me back. I do, however, think that women tend to struggle more with self-doubt and lack of confidence; imposter syndrome is probably the biggest challenge that I have faced during my career. The combination of coaching and having a mentor has really helped with this.

What is the biggest issue facing the profession? 

Climate change is the biggest issue affecting all of us. Accountants can play a vital role in responding to the climate crisis, in a variety of different roles, whether that’s advising clients on sustainable processes, reporting on environmental, social and governance (ESG) metrics or embedding sustainable practices within an organisation. 

What advice would you pass on to other women? 

You are you best when you are your authentic self – don’t try to be someone else.

Sarah Ghaffari, Director, Communities, Business and Practice

What is your experience of being a woman in the accountancy profession?

I have been fortunate to work for an organisation that has seen my potential and given me the opportunity to progress into senior roles, despite being a single parent to a young child – something that I really thought would hold me back. We can be our own worst enemy. I have moments of self-doubt, but I think this also demonstrates self-awareness, which is an important skill. It’s great to see more women taking on senior positions in the profession and to be part of that change.

What are the biggest issues facing the profession?

The pace and scale of regulatory change is not showing any signs of waning and the pressure this puts on small business and practice is significant. Members are also navigating challenges including the impact of economic uncertainty, hybrid working and recruitment issues. It is our role to support and guide members through these challenges.

What advice would you pass on to the women coming up through the ranks today?

Create a strong support network around you, made up of people whose opinions you value and trust. And be kind to yourself. Life moves at such a fast pace. I know I am guilty sometimes of trying to spin too many plates.

Kate Holroyd-Smith, Director, International Development

What are the biggest challenges you have experienced over the course of your career?

Logistics! Managing a work-life balance with a young family, while ensuring I could get on a plane for work was challenging at times. However, the combination of an understanding family and a supportive employer has enabled me to make it work. I have worked at ICAEW for 16 years and found some excellent female role models, both at ICAEW and across the profession. I am very grateful that I have been able to progress professionally and my daughters recognise the importance of having a career as a result. 

What are the biggest issues facing the profession?

Accountancy is increasingly in competition for the best talent with evolving sectors such as the environment, sustainability and tech. However, the ACA qualification not only gives a broad set of financial and accounting skills, but also essential business and professional skills that continue to make becoming an ICAEW member an attractive career choice offering a huge opportunities.

What advice would you pass on?

Seize all the opportunities that come your way. The modern workplace is accommodating of flexible working arrangements, so it is possible to build an interesting career while enjoying a happy work-life balance. And believe in yourself!

Elaine Hong, Regional Director, China and South East Asia

How did you overcome the career obstacles you faced? 

It was only when I was ready for senior management that the glass ceiling became apparent. At that level, having senior people who are willing to ‘sponsor’ or support your growth is really important. I also took a long hard look at the culture of my employers to see if they were walking the talk on the diversity and equality agenda. Where they were, I found that I thrived and was able to contribute.

What are the biggest issues you currently face in your line of work? 

The role of accountants in the ESG agenda is changing minds. I believe that the profession is on the right trajectory to reinvent itself for this new era and to once again rise in relevance and attractiveness. 

What advice would you pass on to other female accountants?

Don’t be too hard on yourself. There’s an expectation that women – especially in Asia – must juggle both career and home. But there is really no need to prove to anyone that we are excelling on all fronts. Find the balance that works for you. And as a female leader, there is no need to be apologetic about being more sensitive or intuitive, more detailed or, in some instances, having a softer speaking tone. Recognise that these are strengths and not weaknesses.

Ailsa Duff, Director, Global Marketing, Brand and Belonging

What has your career to date taught you?

Be kind to people – you can be in a senior role and still be a nice person. Treat everyone with respect and expect the same back. I do my best work and will bend over backwards to deliver for kind people that have built a rapport with me and I have always found this to be the best way to get the most out of my team and our stakeholders. Business is all about building relationships and if people want to work with you, delivering is easy.

What is your top advice for getting ahead?

Develop the people around you – nothing makes me prouder than seeing people I have brought into the business grow and flourish in their careers. I don’t have children, but seeing people I have helped in their career, develop and go on to bigger and better things always makes me feel like a proud mum! Time spent developing the team is never wasted. I’m a huge fan of promoting internally and retaining the best talent.

Join ICAEW's Diversity Community

Online resources and information to equip individuals and organisations with the tools to make the accountancy profession more inclusive. This Community provides information and best practice guidance on the different areas of diversity, helping to educate, support and raise awareness.

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