Gender equality is about more than just fairness and opportunity (though those are pretty strong reasons to focus on it) – but it’s good for business, too. Diverse perspectives, approaches and ways of working can really change the conversation, open new ideas and bring clarity and insight that might otherwise be missed. And that’s especially true of industries that, traditionally, have been male-dominated.

Accountancy, like the rest of the financial and professional services world, has historically been one of the worst offenders when it comes to gender equality. The profession has been proactive in introducing initiatives in recent years, but there’s still a way to go and significant room for improvement – especially when it comes to gender balance in leadership roles.

So, how can championing gender equality benefit your accountancy firm?

Beth Steer, our head of content at PracticeWeb, explores some of the facts at the heart of gender imbalance in the sector, as well as the benefits of addressing it.

Accountancy’s gender gap in numbers

Since 2017, organisations in the UK with more than 250 employees have had to report on whether they have a gender pay gap (and if they do, how big it is). Five years on, latest figures show that about 75% of all organisations have a gender pay gap in favour of men, who earn – on average – 10.4% more across all sectors. 

For accountants, it’s higher than that – with the top 20 accountancy firms in the UK having an average gap of 15-20%. 

And, while a roughly equal number of male and female junior accountants have entered the profession over the last 10 years, this hasn’t translated into senior leadership positions yet – 75% of which were still held by men in 2020.

But what if firms focused on retaining young female talent, helping them grow and develop into higher-paying senior roles? That gap would narrow. Bringing with it a broader range of skillsets and perspectives to the leadership teams of firms around the UK. 

Recognising the modern family

If women are now entering the profession in similar numbers to men and there’s no problem with recruiting them, it’s important to look at the barriers that stop career progression into senior roles. There are lots of factors, but one of the root causes is undeniably the traditional role of women in family life.

Even though family dynamics and roles are evolving (as they should!), with things like shared parental leave becoming more common, women are still the most frequent primary carer for children. Couple that with the fact that, without proper support, starting and raising a family can still take away momentum from a career – even though pregnancy and maternity are protected characteristics by law,

Taking time out and then returning to work can be daunting enough, without the additional pressure of juggling new family responsibilities, or having to readjust to a culture that rewards unrealistic levels of commitment.

So: build a culture that makes sure that’s not something your female employees have to do.

Focus on your culture

Your success is ultimately determined by how much your staff buy into your culture – no matter how much strategic planning you put in place. 

To hire, and keep, great people, you need a culture that truly champions diversity and inclusion and encourages the best talent to rise to the top. 

One of the biggest mistakes companies make is assuming that their culture is defined by what their management or senior leaders set out. And while leading by example is a powerful way of working, it doesn’t matter how great your intentions are if that’s not filtering through to your team: and they’re the ones that keep your business running. 

So, if you really want to peek under the hood of your workplace culture – and whether anyone feels they’re potentially being held back because of who they are – ask them. Internal surveys, or research by an external specialist, will often give you the best answers, detailing little things you might’ve overlooked – like whether or not your weekly team meeting happens at the same time as the school run.

Boosting gender diversity

There are some practical ways you can start improving gender diversity right away. Here are just a few initiatives that accountancy firms across the industry have introduced:

Family-friendly policy

Having a policy that recognises employees have various family responsibilities are becoming as common as sickness, IT, and disciplinary and grievance policies. Including one can set out clearly that the employer will support employees who are juggling work and family life. 

Mentoring programmes

Schemes that include females in senior positions as mentors can help their junior colleagues visualise a clear path to rising through the ranks and ultimately holding senior positions themselves. This can also improve the visibility of gender diversity and act as a conduit for passing softer skills and experience on to the next generation. 

Unconscious bias awareness

Unconscious bias can appear in places like job adverts for senior positions with the use of words like “driven” or “individual” which can be interpreted as carrying masculine coding. And like it or not, anyone can be culpable of unconscious bias when assessing candidates. Reflecting on this, and coming up with simple solutions like blind CVs, can help overcome it.

Setting targets

Creating targets for gender diversity on boards has proven a useful tactic for FTSE 100 companies, and accounting firms that have adopted these measures have reported that their diversity has improved as a result. 

Diversity doesn’t end at gender

Remember that, while equality among genders is a long-running battle when it comes to diversity, inequality exists outside these categories, too. It’s much more complex than the fairness experienced by males compared to females. Characteristics like race, religion and sexuality among others all have minorities who are under-represented, and that’s something to consider proactively.

So, all things considered, why bother?

If for no other reason than this: improving diversity and inclusion could be the key to helping your firm grow sustainably and broaden your range of clients, all while making the world – as well as their work environment – a fairer place. There are quite literally no downsides. 

Take a read of our client case study about Khiya Kara, Director of Kara Bookkeeping Services and how she came to PracticeWeb looking to fulfil her dream of a truly progressive accounting firm.