The global leader of the seventh-largest global accounting network RSM International, Jean Stephens, shares her views and experience of being a woman at the top of a male-dominated profession.
In preparation for writing this article, I thought carefully about what it was I wanted to say around being a woman in the accounting profession, as on reflection of my career to date,I have never felt disadvantaged by being in such a male-dominated profession. On the contrary, I cannot imagine working in any other industry as I’ve had a satisfying and rewarding career within what I consider to be an incredibly interesting and versatile profession.
I came into accounting having graduated in 1981, in the US, in a cohort split equally men to women. During my first qualified position, though the majority of my supervisors and then company partners were male, the company did have a proportion of women in senior positions and I never felt I was treated differently to any other student or staff member.
There were times in earlier roles and companies when a couple of jobs were slanted more towards my male colleagues, but these were rare and never impacted directly on my career.
Despite the fact that accounting today is dominated by men, figures continue to show that young women look at it as a good and positive career choice, just as my mother did when she encouraged me to apply to study the profession.
The total proportion of female students studying accounting worldwide has remained relatively consistent at 48-49% since 2008. However, the gender issue in accounting and other professional and financial services is that it isn’t entering into the industry but its retention rates which continue to give cause for concern.
For example, the number of women studying accounting at doctorate level is only 31% (compared to the 53% that study it at undergraduate level) and the percentage of female students studying accounting is significantly higher than that of female members who go on to qualify and actively practise.
Such statistics do not surprise me. For many years I have watched female colleagues drop out at manager level, around the five or six-year mark, as they look for greater flexibility with regards to their family work-life balance. As I do not have children, it could be argued that I have little experience of this issue. However I have followed it in the lives of many friends, colleagues and employees, for whom this has been and continues to be an important time of life.
Since I began my career in accounting, the conversation surrounding women in leadership positions has not changed and this is an issue not just for the accounting industry but for business worldwide. Progress is beginning to be made with a number of campaigns, such as the 20% women on boards by 2020 project in the US and 25% female board representation goal by 2015 in the UK, but I feel we are still aiming too low.
Fortunately the accounting profession is doing a lot more to try to change this, particularly in terms of providing flexible schedules which are more family-friendly. I also think women are becoming, (and need to be) more creative and assertive with their companies and senior management in asking for what they need and taking the initiative to create the change necessary for them.
I have always made it my mission to speak out and be clear, focusing on results and transparency in all of my relationships, especially when working with our member firms. I work with different cultures from around the world on a daily basis, many of which are predominantly male, but this attitude has meant that I have always been able to be open about where we as a network need to go and what we need to do in order to be even more successful. It has also meant that I have never had any qualms in advocating quotas for women on boards and in management positions as a viable tool to drive change and behaviours in business for the better.
My experience of being chief executive at RSM International has shown me that there are no significant issues brought about by the fact that I am a woman, no matter where I am in the world. Instead it has become a norm for our clients, our member firms and those with whom I interact with on a daily basis. Having women in senior positions and at board level is simply about diversity, which in itself has proven business benefit.
With less than 15% of Fortune 500 executive officer positions held by women in 2013 it is time for change and for businesses at large to embrace measures to encourage a more balanced team composition.