I have read many reports and best practice papers by firms and other organisations within the profession and followed webcasts and public debates about women in leadership and accounting. Most of these were published or organised to mark International Woman’s Day, celebrated on 8 March each year, the day often used to highlight some of the key issues for women looking to take on leadership roles.
I believe such activates are key for future change and despite its slow pace – let’s remember only one of the top 10 global accounting networks is run by a woman – the profession is aware change needs to happen and that it has a role to play in improving diversity in the business and finance community.
Despite the good work being done things are not that straightforward, and many are still reluctant to suggest solutions and are, to some extent, baffled about how to limit the effects of parenthood on women’s careers and their leadership potential. The International Accounting Bulletin Women in Accounting survey carried out earlier this month showed that a career break and a need for more flexible hours are the two biggest barriers preventing women climbing to the top of the corporate ladder.
And let’s face it, women at a senior level who are parents are still often perceived, not just by their mangers but by their colleagues too, as less hard working and dedicated to the job because of their flexible hours and not being so chained to the desk.
And just as I was trawling through the material looking for ideas and thoughts on how to change our perception of a working parent, I came across a TED Talk by US academic and public policy expert Anne-Marie Slaughter.
Slaughter argues that real gender equality not only comes from the number of male and female leaders we have in the world, but also by putting an end to valuing women on male terms, which means creating a much wider range of accepted choices for men and women. She says this can only be achieved by changing workplaces, policies and culture.
In the workplace, Slaughter says, this means valuing family just as much as work and understanding that they reinforce each other. She argues that workers who are also care-givers and parents develop skills such as patience, empathy, creativity, resilience and adaptability, which are all key skills in a working environment and ever more important in today’s horizontal global economy.
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At a policy level Slaughter argues that breadwinning and care-giving are equally important for humanity and the two should not translate into male and female responsibilities, but should be considered as family responsibilities. She says some of the most progressive economies such as Norway and Sweden with the best quality of living ranking have worked out that by valuing services such as universal childcare and subsidised childcare they are seeing economic productivity increase and improved living standards.
As for the cultural change Slaughter argues men need to be re-socialised. At the moment women are well placed to make the choice between parenthood and career while men are still socialised to believe their success is measured by the power they achieve in a work environment and by how they outperform other men. And a man deciding to become a care-giver is often judged harshly by other men and many find it almost impossible to return to work after such a decision, she argues, adding that re-socialising men on their evolving role is key.
Perhaps you may not fully agree with Slaughter, but I must say that, amid the pages and pages of corporate material and discussion, her words in a 15-minute TED speech made a great deal of sense, and perhaps as professional services firms try proactively to change their workplace, they might need to develop better policies, acting for the greater good of all our futures and the future of the generations to come.