Four of the accounting profession’s top female leaders have exclusively shared their views with the International Accounting Bulletin and sister publication The Accountant on the role of women in the industry in celebration of International Women’s Day 2013 today.

The gender issue has been hotly debated in the past few years within the accounting profession, wider business community and on a governmental and regulatory level around the world and is likely to continue this year.

Despite a big push to tackle the glass ceiling there is still an existing gender gap within the accounting profession. Although the majority of professional accounting bodies and firms have been encouraging women to enter the profession and take up leadership roles through a number of initiatives not all agree legislation, quotas or targets are the right route to take.

However, when there still remains only one top 10 global accounting network run by a woman – RSM – and only one global professional accounting body – Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) – it is clear more needs to be done to deal with this issue.

RSM chief executive Jean Stephens, ACCA chief executive Helen Brand, Morison International chief executive Liza Robbins and Ernst & Young (E&Y) Fraud Investigations and Dispute Services partner Maryam Kennedy answered five questions we put to them on female representation, the glass ceiling, female quotas and their advice for ambitions women entering the profession. Here are their responses:

As a woman holding a senior leadership position within the accounting profession, have you ever felt the effects of the glass ceiling during your career progression?
I have enjoyed every step of my career and I am hugely proud to be RSM’s chief executive RSM. Working with member firms, the International Board of Directors and colleagues from other accounting firms and organisations, has been enormously interesting and rewarding and I have been lucky enough to experience a wide variety of cultures and ways of doing business. Staying focused on results has always stood me in good stead.

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Brand: Throughout my career I always had a woman ahead of me, so I was lucky enough to have role models I could aspire to. I think this is important, having a role model or a mentor in the workplace – and not necessarily a woman. This creates the right kind of atmosphere for aspiration, diversity and personal growth.

Robbins: Personally no – but I did not grow up in the accounting profession. My first job was working for a high-profile entrepreneur, who was hard-wired for good business and readily promoted any individual who represented commercial value. I then worked in Asia, where determination and results were what mattered. My previous role was at a Swedish listed company, and the Nordics lead the way in gender equality issues. Would my answer be different if I had grown up in the accounting profession? I cannot tell.

Kennedy: I’ve certainly faced obstacles along the way but, at the time, I didn’t think of them as being related to being a woman. So the answer is "maybe" but I managed to walk through the glass with only a few cuts and bruises!

Could you please provide us with any anecdotal examples of the challenges or a positive experience you have had in relation to the above question?
I spend 80% of my time travelling; I’ve been around the world and am averaging over 20 different countries a year. In every office, city and country I have travelled to with RSM I have felt welcomed and effective. I have been able to hold solid business discussions and focus on what we can achieve together; I think it is key to be sensitive and respectful of local customs whilst staying true to yourself. It has been intellectually challenging bringing my approach, as both a UK and US citizen, into these different business environments but these experiences have proved crucial in both my own development and in successfully working with my global colleagues to build a strong, quality driven network.

Brand: On a broad anecdotal level, I think the glass ceiling can be broken by challenging conventions, being prepared to be different. Women have to be adept at breaking into the clubs and the work networks that can still be exclusive, which is what I’ve done. We all need to work to be more inclusive, and clubs by definition are exclusive. So we need to change that definition and the only way of doing that is to invest time in making change happen.

Robbins: One of our Morison International member firms is 90% female, including at a senior level. The firm advises me that although they have to make provisions for maternity leave and childcare, the benefits the firm reaps from their "best person for the job" recruitment policy make it a successful strategy. Regrettably, I have heard anecdotal examples of firms in the industry, who do not employ women due to maternity and/or childcare issues, which damages both the industry and the firm. More encouragingly, the old-boy network type recruitment methods do seem to be dying out, as businesses face more complex and challenging futures and need to rely on robust results-driven recruitment methods.
When speaking to potential new Morison International member firms from some countries in Eastern Europe, we actually notice a dominance of women in senior positions. It would be interesting to understand the UK accounting industry’s position as compared to other countries.

Kennedy: My job is to investigate major financial fraud and corruption cases. In one overseas investigation, after a particularly long interview about a ‘missing’ $0.5bn, I overheard him say to a colleague, "they’ve sent a woman because they know in our culture we can’t tell a woman to just get lost". To which he replied, "Yes, she should be at home. But imagine living with her – so many questions – I bet it’s the husband who sends her away!" Having worked and lived in many countries, I see the challenges in the UK for women to progress in the context of a global picture where millions of women are still struggling for basic legal recognition that they have equal rights to men. In that context, the glass ceiling here looks pretty fragile.

What do you think the main reason is for the lack of women in leadership positions in the accounting profession?
This is an issue the profession has been working on since I graduated from university. 50% of accounting graduates are women so it is imperative we fix this; if we do not, it is a large pool of people who we are not utilising to help us to drive the profession and our businesses forward. Diversity provides strength and we need to initiate change in order to achieve a better balance on our boards and throughout our companies. Although the percentages are relatively low, there are some very talented women in positions of leadership, and poised to be future leaders, of some significant bodies across the profession. There is room for improvement but we have a strong platform from which to build.

Brand: Professional accountancy is a credible and proven route to give women (as well as men) the skills and competence to succeed in business. We recently looked into the issue of leadership in a joint report with Cranfield School of Management and the Economic and Social Research Council, Women in finance; a springboard to corporate board positions?, which found a financial qualification or a background which demonstrates substantial financial acumen are seen as catalysts for women getting onto the boards of FTSE companies.
It also said finance is the language of the boardroom and having the ability to communicate financial information establishes and builds credibility. But I also said when we launched this report that the old adage of ‘it’s not what you know but who you know’ still stands in the workplace; but for women – to get to the top they need to be motivated, driven, determined and known."
The report shows that proportionally, women appear more successful in attaining executive roles where they have a financial background: 45% of female executive directors are financially qualified and 65% in total have a financial background, while 26% of their male colleagues are financially qualified and 44% have a financial background.
Part of the equation here is also about recruitment policies. Our research showed the finance function is seen by the three groups we interviewed for the research – executive search consultants, chairmen and women who have made it to the board – to be more facilitative for women’s progress to the top of corporate organisations.

Robbins: When I speak to my 40-something industry contemporaries I rarely encounter sexist views. When I take my time machine back to the 1970s and 1980s, the situation is very different. The number of women in leadership positions today is partly a result of the culture of an earlier time. The industry is changing (slowly, but changing all the same) and as the new generations progress through the profession, they replace the old culture with more relevant business thinking. This does not get today’s profession "off the hook" and able to totally blame previous generations – we must also address additional obstacles still in place.

Kennedy: As I look around me, at the leadership profile at E&Y and other global accounting firms, the picture is changing. But I think one of the factors that still lead women to leave the profession is the degree of rigidity in management structures and ways of working and women have wanted more control and faster pace of change. We see the impact in women leaving the profession to, for example, set up their own businesses, and the profession prioritising issues such as flexible working.

In the past year, there has been particular pressure on governments to apply mandatory boardroom quotas as a way to tackle under representation in the profession and wider business community. Do you agree with this type of measure?
I believe quotas have a role to play in helping us to achieve change. Some interesting research coming out of the London Business School shows the closer to a 50/50 split you have on a board, the more innovative you are as a company. Go beyond 60/40, either way, and your measured effectiveness drops considerably. Voluntary action has made some headway across various industries but we need to take action to ensure this improvement continues; quotas are the best available solution to help us achieve that gender balance and get more women on board room seats. Ultimately, it is simply about building stronger companies.

Brand: ACCA believes the solution is not necessarily through legislation, quotas and targets, but through practical steps that could make a substantive difference. Women should be empowered to achieve under their own terms in the working world. We do not agree with quotas because it can be corrosive if board members suspect the only reason someone is on the board is to fill a quota. Legislation would, in our view, be the last resort, to be used only if businesses fail to recognise the positive reasons for diversity.

Robbins: I am nervous about these types of enforced quotas. I do not want future generations of women to face accusations they are only in a top job because of a quota system. I am the chief executive of Morison International because the directors felt I was the best person for the job – and I retain my position by delivering to their expectations. I want future generations of women to be able to say the same. We need more women in senior and board level positions, not because the statistics tell us so, but because it is fundamentally good for business. As much as I dislike quota systems, I may support a time-limited quota system, which would fast track woman to senior positions, but which they would only retain based on their on-going performance.

Kennedy: I believe those professions and organisations that do not evolve and bring in a diversity of thinking and perspective, of which gender is only one factor, will not survive. Women do not need quotas as a favour to progress, but the profession needs a collectively diverse leadership to achieve its objectives.

What advice would you give to the ambitious women entering the profession today?
Focus on the mission at hand for the company, learning as much as you can from the people around you, and progression will follow. Select several strong role models, both male and female; they will help you to negotiate the corporate world and remind you of what you can achieve when you put your mind to it. Lastly, never underestimate the fact that hard work will pay dividends.

Brand: Be authentic, and be yourself. Trying to be what the perceived wisdom of what a leader is or isn’t can often be the wrong way to go about things. I’ve said before in interviews that leadership – whether you’re a man or a woman – is about the qualities you bring to the work place – those of decisiveness, the ability to bring strategy into action, to appoint the right people and to trust your actions.

Robbins: Results rule! And the tougher the economic climate – the more results rule!
Be yourself. Do not feel you have to conform to any female stereotypes, or incorporate any stereotypical male traits if they are not natural to you. Understand who you are as an individual, what your strengths are – and focus and deliver on them. Do not see the world as female versus male, but as groups of people who operate based on different value systems. Associate with people with whom you have shared values, whether those values are hard work, determination or equality. If anyone tries to hold you back because you are female (or for any other reason) – do not focus on them, but continue to focus on yourself, what your strengths are and continue to deliver those all-important results. Results are what define you in any smart business.

Kennedy: It was a piece of advice I was given early on in my career by a mentor I respected very much: "When you blow your own horn, recognise the orchestra." You’ll only get so far by yourself. Build a team around you as you go to be collectively powerful and successful.

Related articles
More needs to be done to tackle gender diversity at senior levels: ACCA
The issue of gender diversity
Boardroom quotas not the answer to underrepresentation: Randstad
Related links
International Women’s Day
Association of Chartered Certified Accountants
Morison International
Ernst & Young