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Celebrating International Women’s Day: Prof Elaine Boyd OBE

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 07 Mar 2024

We meet the accountancy trailblazer, a high-flyer who champions inclusivity and accessibility for individuals with disabilities – when she’s not skiing or at the controls of a light aircraft.

The desire to forge your own path is an admirable quality, even more so when a disability limits other people’s expectations of your potential. And Elaine Boyd hasn’t let having cerebral palsy get in the way of her ambitions. 

Despite an interest in mathematics and finance at school, teachers suggested Boyd might want to set her career expectations at a more ‘realistic’ level and get a job in a shop. But she had other plans. Having done her homework about the intricacies of the job, she began an accountancy apprenticeship with a small local firm, alongside studying part time for her ACCA qualification at Glasgow Caledonian University.

After leaving practice, Boyd held various financial roles in the NHS before moving to public sector spending watchdog Audit Scotland in 2002, spending her first 15 years at the coalface of public sector financial audit delivery across Scotland. 

“About seven years ago, I applied to develop a quality framework for Scottish public audit, and then was asked to deliver it. That’s largely what I’ve been working on for the last five or six years.” 

In her current role as Director of Audit Quality and Appointments, it’s Boyd’s job to manage audit appointments for public bodies in Scotland and oversee audit quality on more than £50bn of annual spending. Two thirds of Scottish public sector audits are done in-house and the remainder by private firms, of which there are currently six signed up for the next five years. 

The Scottish code of audit practice brings in measures beyond financial statements, including financial sustainability, governance and leadership, and best value. “In Scotland, we're not just providing opinions on financial statements,” Boyd says.

The value provided by that broad scope is not to be underestimated, particularly given the current financial state of public services. In January Audit Scotland warned that financial pressures are pushing councils to make hard decisions about service cuts and that, although they are managing their money effectively and increasing reserves – no council was at immediate financial risk in 2022/23 – there is no certainty this will continue.

Despite the precarious state of public finances, Boyd’s passion for the public sector is driven by her belief in the invaluable role it performs. She’s frustrated by the focus on things going wrong: “There are lots of good stories where people have had great experiences. Good public services are an important part of a civilised society, but I’ve never seen the system as stretched as this.”

Despite the pressure, audit standards under the watchful eyes of Boyd and her colleagues have continued to rise over the last few years. While there have been some high-profile private sector audit failures, including Carillion and Patisserie Valerie, Boyd says: “If you look at the latest FRC reports, audit quality is moving in the right direction. I can see the investment being made in audit quality and people trying hard to make a difference.”

Last year, ICAEW was awarded the contract to perform the independent quality reviews for Audit Scotland, prompting Boyd to gain her ACA qualification via the Pathways programme. “It was important to me as the lead person for the reviews taking place. Because ICAEW reviews for audit agencies in Wales and Northern Ireland, that broader UK perspective is really helpful.”

The skills legacy of the pandemic is continuing to play out across the audit market. Fortunately, the success of Audit Scotland’s graduate trainee programme has ensured a regular stream of recruits at a time when many other public bodies have had a freeze on recruitment and training. “We currently have about 50 or 60 trainees and try to keep that level so we’re always growing for the future. Bringing in people who have just completed their studies also ensures you’re in tune with the latest thinking and ways of working.” Amid huge changes to the profession and the need for new skills driven by AI and new areas of focus including sustainability standards, fresh thinking is definitely a plus, she says. 

Meanwhile, flexible routes to entry help to ensure a diverse mix of recruits; in addition to its thriving graduate programme, Audit Scotland offers an apprenticeship/school leaver programme and another for part-qualified members of staff. 

The diversity and inclusivity of the accountancy profession in all its guises is, perhaps not surprisingly, a subject close to Boyd’s heart. Despite progress in making access routes to the accountancy profession more flexible for people with disabilities – including neurodivergence, physical disabilities and mental health issues – there's still work to be done with accessibility and on-the-job support, Boyd says.

“All the institutes now have more flexible access routes and the pandemic opened remote working opportunities. But that shouldn’t replace your ability to connect with colleagues. Some employers are scared by the idea of ‘reasonable adjustments’ and yet that might be a different type of keyboard or different office chair,” she says.

At the same time, a tendency by employers to focus on what those with disabilities can’t do rather than home in on their strengths is stalling progress, she warns. Organisations such as The Shaw Trust and Business in the Community are good sources of advice: “There isn’t a one-size-fits-all. Society needs to try and accommodate.”

Boyd’s tireless work to promote inclusivity has not gone unnoticed; she has twice appeared in the Shaw Trust Disability Power 100, as one of the UK’s most influential disabled people, most recently in 2022, and in 2023 was awarded an OBE in the New Year Honours List for public and charitable services. More recently she was also named an honorary professor at Glasgow Caledonian University. 

Boyd has also used her financial skills for good through involvement – as a trustee and treasurer – in numerous charities over the past 20 or so years, including Glasgow Riding for the Disabled, Cerebral Palsy Scotland and Disability Snowsport UK: “It’s been really enjoyable for me to help organisations secure funding, or give strategic direction.” 

She also has first-hand experience of the positive impact services can have on wellbeing and mobility; Boyd has an adapted e-trike for sorties with the Callander Cycling Meanderers in the Trossachs and enjoys skiing thanks to tethers and the help of an instructor at Disability Snowsport UK. She is also learning to fly in an adapted plane thanks to Alba Airsports in Perth. There’s no doubting it, this high-flyer is a force to be reckoned with.

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