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May 24, 2011

Shattering the glass ceiling

A limited number of women in the workplace and the boardroom has been a consistent concern for the industry. Following a UK report which makes several recommendations to attract more women into top jobs, Sheena Rossiter examines the global effort to increase the number of women in accounting.


Photograph of Sharron Gunn, Women in Leadership, ICAEWIt’s no secret that the finance industry has traditionally been dominated by men. But the number of women in boardrooms still remains shockingly low today. In the UK, figures show that only 18 FTSE 100 firms have women on boards, only 16 blue chip companies have a female executive director, and a fifth of FTSE 100 firms have no females on the board at all.

The figures are even lower in the FTSE 250 firms where only 24 women hold positions as executive directors, which makes for a meagre 4% of the total, according to corporate governance group Manifest.

These figures decrease even more in non-listed companies, which is low considering that in the UK women make up more than half of accountants, according to the Institute of Chartered Accountants for England and Wales (ICAEW) chief executive officer Michael Izza.

A real push to get more women in the boardroom came in February this year when former British trade minister Lord Davis published a report Women on Boards, which makes several recommendations to the UK Financial Reporting Council (FRC) on how to get more women into top positions in the financial sector.

The report suggests that the FRC amends the UK corporate governance code that would make listed companies implement a policy to create more diversity in the boardroom. Lord Davis said that a “radical change” is needed in the UK to improve its low figures of women on boards, and “to ensure that more talented and gifted women can get into the top jobs in companies across the UK”.

Lord Davis’ anti-discrimination guidelines went on to add that the amended governance code should also look at measurable objectives that can be shown in an annual progress report. The report calls on the 350 largest publicly listed companies in the UK to ensure that at least 25% of their directors are female by 2015.

So far the FRC has responded by saying it will review its existing code and take into consideration Lord Davis’ suggestions, and consult on whether or not further changes need to be implemented.

Bar chart showing criteria for board nomination/appointmentIn terms of the accounting profession, the ICAEW has taken the Women on Boards report even further and has created a nine-month programme called Women in Leadership, which is working with Opportunity Now, a diversity campaign that works with business communities. The course, which is currently full, has put together a group of 12 women to offer support to others reaching for top positions.

“We noticed that there were very few women being put forward. We weren’t even getting women candidates for programmes about boards. And we were worried that there would be no women in the next round of boards, and the next generation didn’t appear to be coming through,” says Sharron Gunn, programme director of Women in Leadership at ICAEW.

“We created Women in Leadership to help many women reach board level. Female leadership programmes had to be put forward. It helps companies realise that they do have talented women and that they do need to put their women forward.”

Women in Leadership, which launched 4 May, had such an overwhelming positive response that ICAEW is looking to potentially develop another programme for women in accounting who are looking to move up.

“We’ve already started at looking how to make non-executive women members on boards, and we’re hosting three events later on this year. We’re already seeing demand for more junior women to progress through their careers,” says Rhonda Martin, Development Manager of Member Services at ICAEW.

ICAEW will be hosting events on 23 June, 3 October and 24 November in London that focus specifically on getting women on boards. Increasing female membership numbers are showing where the demand for more programmes and events is coming from.

Currently, ICAEW has more than 134,000 members in 160 countries with a quarter of them being women. That number is up from 2006 when only about 22.5% of ICAEW’s members were women. Student figures are even higher and about 40% of students training to become an ACA are female.

Fellow UK accounting body the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) boasts even higher female membership figures. The ACCA, which was the first accountancy body to admit women into its membership in 1909, has a 44% female global membership, and 49% of ACCA students are women.

In 2010, the ACCA Pakistan looked at this issue and published a report entitled Gender Diversity on Boards in Pakistan. The report, not dissimilar to that by Lord Davis, looked at getting more women on boards in Pakistan, and offered suggestions to policy makers in Pakistan on ways to increase diversity in the country’s boardrooms.

In Brazil, the accounting profession is gaining stronger female dominance. According to the Federal Accounting Council (CFC), 26% of the 492,272 accountants are female, and in certain regions women make up an even higher percentage of accountants.

Photograph of Ana Maria Elorrieta, president, IBRACONIn the North region of Brazil, 38% of accountants are female, in the Centre-West region women make up 29.5% and in the North-East and the South, females make up 28% of accountants in those regions.

It is only in the populous and business hub of the South-East that skews the average, with women only accounting for 23% of accountants in that region. And with its first female president, Brazil is showing positive progress towards having women in higher positions.

“We do not have any specific action to get more women in accounting. However, if we look at universities today, more than 50% of the students working towards an accounting degree are women,” says Ana María Elorrieta, president of the Institute of Independent Auditors of Brazil (IBRACON).

“This is a very positive indicator. This shows that women are demonstrating talent and competence in the profession.”

In Australia, the number of women in accounting has increased significantly over the past decade. Women now make up for 44% of membership at CPA Australia, compared to 33% 10 years ago. Since 2000, women have made up 56% of new members at CPA Australia, and the trend is expected to continue this way.

In a similar way to the ICAEW in the UK, CPA Australia has developed a number of programmes to help women in accounting.

“We have an online chat community for women returning to work. We offer access to role models and opportunities to hear from female CPAs on boards, in addition to information on training and events,” says Alex Malley, CEO of CPA Australia.

“Since its introduction in 2010, it has been CPA Australia’s most popular online community. We also offer regular face-to-face networking events to share experiences and be inspired by successful women in business.”

In terms of other more broad initiatives, there are some run by the Australian Institute of Company Directors, such as a mentoring programme for emerging women directors.

“The Australian Stock Exchange [ASX] also has guidelines as outlined in their Corporate Government Principles and Recommendations. Recommendation 3 focuses on diversity levels and policies required by listed companies.”

Canada is taking a different approach to training female accountants who have recently arrived in the country. The newly adopted IFRS nation has a programme in Calgary that looks at helping female accountants, who are recent immigrants to the country, re-train to meet Canadian standards.

The Calgary Women’s Immigrant Association (CWIA) hosts a 14-week programme called Bridging the Gap for Foreign Trained Accountants that has trained more than 300 female accounting and accounting-related professionals so far, who have more than seven years’ experience in their home countries.

The programme started as a project in May 2008, and was jointly funded between Citizenship and Immigration Canada and Alberta Employment and Immigration.

“Foreign trained accountants do not need to be ‘re-skilled’ per se but rather they need the knowledge gaps based on the differences in Canadian Accounting compared to other international standards,” says Maria Nella de Lisi, the coordinator of the programme.

“The programme is designed to fill in some of that gap. It provides them training in Canadian accounting software such as QuickBooks, Simply Accounting and Accpac, as well as basic Canadian accounting practices. We also connect all of our participants with CGA, CA and CMA to ensure they are fully informed about the different career paths that are available to them in Canada,” she says.

The programme also helps trainees obtain a ten-week work placement and create the right CV. It also focuses on: Canadian culture; spoken business communication; written business communication; job search skills; preparation for work experience placements; accounting (introductory and software); and career development.

The CWIA chose to focus on helping female accountants specifically since the bulk of its clientele has that background. But even though the programme has been a success at getting more women to work in the profession, like many other countries that are pushing to get more women to move up in accounting, it does not come without its challenges.

“There have been tremendous changes in Canada over the past few years that encourage the acknowledgment of foreign credentials, and professional designation bodies have modified their processes, services and programming to meet these challenges. Nonetheless, there is still a substantial amount of time and investment required for foreign-trained accountants to determine the best career path and to get their foot in the door in the Canadian workplace,” de Lisi says.


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