By Olivia Kirtley, president, IFAC
For more than half of the twentieth century, women were virtually nonexistent in the accounting field. They struggled to break into a male-dominated industry – a phenomenon that was not uncommon in the early years of the post-World War II era.
That was the world I lived in when, as an eager college graduate in 1972, I had my heart set on working for one of the Big Eight accounting firms, knowing full well that the odds were stacked against me. I left a day-long interview feeling confident, only to be told that while I was qualified for the position, the firm didn’t hire women for its professional staff.
Just a few weeks later, I interviewed with the managing partner of another Big Eight firm who had three daughters who, like me, would be seeking job opportunities. Fortunately, he was willing to take a chance on a young woman from a small rural town in Kentucky.
Fast forward 40 years, and women entering the profession face a very different world. In many countries, particularly in the Asia Pacific region and some developing nations, the majority of new entrants into the accountancy profession are female. In developed countries, including the US and Europe, women in the profession have advanced significantly.
Our work is not over. While women have an increasing presence in the accountancy profession, attaining a greater number of senior roles remains a challenge. Women make up half of all accounting employees in the US, yet just 21% are partners and only 11% of Fortune 500 CFOs are women. While these numbers represent great strides forward, they also leave room for tremendous growth. In developing countries, less than 5% of partners in firms are women, with the exception of the Philippines, where they provide a terrific example for what is possible to the rest of the world, with 47% in senior management roles.
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Diversity and inclusion in the accountancy profession is not just the right thing to do; it is a business imperative. Teams comprising both men and women of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds collectively think more creatively to implement strategic solutions benefiting their clients, their business, and the economy.
An international study by McKinsey that investigated companies with various levels of diversity found that companies with the most diverse leadership enjoyed a 53% higher return on equity than companies with the least diverse leadership. Additionally, diverse and inclusive boards can have a profound effect on business performance.
We cannot ignore the need to recruit the best and the brightest people from all backgrounds. As IFAC president I have traveled to many countries, and I have been inspired by women accountants, some of whom have demonstrated great courage and resilience in the face of adversity to gain their skills. Their enthusiasm for their careers – and their desire to support their countries’ full participation in the global economy – is as great as that of women anywhere; and their participation will be vital in the future.
Building on our dedication to serving the public interest and strengthening economies, IFAC has long endorsed diversity and inclusion in the accountancy profession. We recognize that the global profession can only achieve its greatest potential when it draws from the widest pool of talent available.
Many orchestras have adopted "blind auditions" to eliminate gender bias in their hiring and promotion practices. During the process, candidates are situated on stage behind a screen to play for a jury unable to see them. Research has shown that using this step makes it 50% more likely that a woman will advance to a final round – and be offered a position.
This research shows that gender bias can be unconscious – but it also can be corrected.
Recognizing that our profession’s growth and improved performance demands that we access all available talent, we must challenge ourselves to find ways to overcome gender bias – unconscious or otherwise. There is always more work to do – building on the achievements of the past four decades requires both dedication and innovation. I believe it’s a challenge we can meet.