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Gender diversity and 100 years of women in chartered accountancy

2020 marked the 100th anniversary of the first female chartered accountant in the world, Mary Harris Smith. Joining the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) following the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal Act) in December of 1919, Smith's ground-breaking position in the history of finance and accountancy paved the way for women entering the workplace. As seemingly revolutionary as Smith’s admission to the ICAEW may be, the road to gender equality in accountancy has been a little less than smooth.

So, what is the landscape of gender diversity and equality in accountancy over 100 years on from the Sex Disqualification Act?

A report from Cranfield School of Management published in 2012 found that only 15.6% of directors of FTSE 100 companies were women – additionally, women were absent from the boards of 11 of those businesses. Furthermore, research conducted by the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) found that, whilst 46% of women typically reached the rank of manager within the accountancy profession at this time, only 17% became partners; this statistic dropped to a concerning 11% in smaller firms (200 employees or less).

Some years later, a 2016 report by ICAEW found that 57% of female accountants believed accountancy to be a male dominated field. And continuing from this, a report in 2018 by PwC identified the impact of workplace cultures on the progression of women to senior role – women questioned as part of the survey highlighted a particular problem in the lack of identifiable female role models within an organisation. Incisive Media, the organiser of the 'Women in Accountancy and Finance Awards' noted that although women who gained top positions within firms were "outstanding role models…there are still too few women leading practices".

It is also important to remember that the gender pay gap has always been an issue within accountancy. Currently it sits at 21.5% (almost 5% higher than the national average). Ramona Dzinkowski, editor-in-chief of the Sustainable Accounting Review, highlights that "it's no epiphany to learn that accountancy firms are still heavily weighted towards male principals".

Despite these findings over the years, figures from the seven main professional accountancy bodies (ACA, ACCA, CAI, CIPFA, CIMA, ICAEW, and ICAS), reported that over the past two decades there has been a marked increase in female students enrolled across all bodies – in 2017, 49% of students at the seven professional bodies were female. Alongside this, a report published in by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) found that, in the UK, women now make up 44% of full-time accountants. These statistics indicate a growing presence of women within accountancy in the UK, bringing the balance of male and female accountants to an almost 50/50 equilibrium.

And the benefits of pushing for gender diversity within accountancy firms are evident – research shows that companies with more women in leadership positions are more profitable and efficient.

With these promising changes in mind, it is still important to reflect on how we, as finance professionals, approach gender equality within our own organisations. Although a City of London blue plaque may now hang proudly where Mary Harris Smith's office once stood near Bank station, as a profession, accountancy still has a way to go to achieve genuine and consistent gender equality.

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