Women at work: gender diversity at accounting firms

To celebrate International Women’s Day, the team at accounting firm Mercer & Hole give us their views on gender balance, leadership and what the accountancy industry needs to do to create a #BalanceforBetter in a working environment which is still fairly male dominated

This week Mercer & Hole deputy managing partner, Gill Tallon celebrates 40 years as a tax professional, a career path which was driven by the words ‘equal opportunities employer’ on a job advertisement.

But it was not an easy start in the late 1970s when she faced undiluted sexism in the workplace. Much may have changed for the better over those four decades but as we celebrate International Women’s Day, there is still a way to go.

Gill Tallon, deputy managing partner, Mercer & Hole

‘My working life began working in a bank. At the time, there were eight trainees, six girls and two boys. We were told by the bank’s manager that two of us would be selected for banking exams after six months,’ says Tallon.

‘Out of all the trainees, my colleague Jane and I were the only two with a 100% record with no errors. As we all had to stay until the day’s remittances balanced this was a record to be proud of.

‘When the manager announced that the two boys were put forward to the exams, we were more than disappointed. When I asked for feedback, I was simply told that our performance had been exceptional but “the truth is there are not many female bank managers” and I could have a perfectly good career as a cashier!

‘It was then that I decided to leave. I saw a job advertised with the Inland Revenue, stating they were an equal opportunities employer – this was the driver for me to apply and the rest is history.’

Unlike some accounting firms in the annual Accountancy Top 75 Firms survey Mercer & Hole takes the issue very seriously and has a 33% balance of women partners, versus men, significantly higher than the industry average of 19%.

Today, balance is not a women’s issue but a broader business issue, which is recognised and addressed by the Mercer & Hole team.

Liz Cuthbertson, private client partner

‘Gender balance is important in order to get all round perspective. There is no single male or female view of a point but both men and women have attributes that can be successful in leadership,’ says Cuthbertson.

‘Women may think more immediately about the challenges facing women in the workplace such as juggling work and children, and it is important that women are in leadership roles to ensure we have full representation of these issues.’

Andrew Dean, audit manager

‘Gender balance shouldn’t just be seen as an ethical standpoint and equality issue but needs to be recognised also as the optimised way of working,’ says Dean.

‘A gender-balanced workforce not only offers a better balance of strengths and perspectives, surely improving business performance, but also provides an environment in which different personalities feel supported and able to discuss issues and challenges with colleagues.’

Clare Chambers, assistant manager  

‘Diversity of all types is important for teams as different experiences and personalities bring different insights to roles,’ says Chambers.

‘For a client service firm, this can be especially important as there is an increased chance of building rapport with a range of clients if a full spectrum of personalities are available.’   

How to create more equality in the accountancy profession

The question is what more can be done to encourage gender balance within the accountancy profession. Despite the positive words, more headway needs to be made in the industry.

Accountancy’s Top 75 Survey 2019 reported 18.7% women partners in the profession despite more women than men entering the accounting profession. At Mercer & Hole, there are more positive statistics with 33% women partners, but what more can be done to encourage gender-balance in the industry?

Chambers says: ‘Historically, I feel accountancy has a reputation of being a boys’ club with meetings held on golf courses. This can be seen as a barrier to entry for younger women considering careers in the industry.

‘Finding representation and role models is important for children and teenagers when considering how they want to be when they are older.’

There are number of important things the profession can do to improve the working environment and encourage real gender diversity at all levels of the firm, not just at entry level.

For Dean 'the top priorities for the industry are:

  1. recognise systematic biases and imbalances currently in place, so that these can be eliminated at firm and industry level;
  2. set targets for promotion of women in leadership, and where this isn’t happening, understand the reasons why and how these can be overcome;
  3. encourage greater publication of employment statistics; and
  4. provide support for improved return to work initiatives’.

Tips: what makes a strong leader

Strong leadership is all important in the drive for gender-balance and those who do see it as essential for their businesses, economies and communities to thrive have a strong advantage.

So what makes a strong leader? The Mercer & Hole team give us their views:

Senior tax manager, Sarah Sparshott said: ‘I don’t actually think there’s anything about gender that makes men better than women, or vice versa. We can all be effective leaders.

‘Leaders are confident and they work hard, but they’re also prepared to take risks, maybe where others wouldn’t be.

‘They are appreciative and compassionate, fair and honest. A great leader can communicate well and should leave the team feeling as though the end result or outcome was a joint effort.

‘Leaders also need to be flexible and willing to adapt according to the situation and the needs of others.’

Audit director, Jolene Upshall said: ‘Great leaders inspire, motivate and create a positive energy that instils itself into those around them. They seek solutions to problems that promote a growth mind set within an organisation and levels of excitement that enable innovative ideas to be heard and acted on.

‘Within this they are able to remain relevant, grounded and realistic as to what is achievable and right for the business or organisation they represent. I think these qualities can present equally in either gender and great leaders are identified by their successes, failings from which they have learned from and their current outlook, not their gender.’        

Dean’s viewpoint is that ‘self-confidence, decision-making, problem solving, the ability to remain calm under pressure, communication, strategy, vision, etc… the list goes on. Some men may be better at some, while some women may be better at others, but I don’t think any one of those traits is dictated by gender.’        

What makes the team successful

Rachel Morgan joined Mercer & Hole as a trainee in 2016 and is a fan of the culture of collaboration that exists at the firm. ‘I think the thing that makes Mercer & Hole a great place to work is a combination of the people and the ethos. The value placed on learning and teaching, coupled with the culture of collaboration means that you are always engaging with others which shapes your development of a strong range of skills (technical, communication, organisational, etc).

‘I personally also value the way that the firm allows individuals to take on a role of responsibility at every level, fostering the feeling of independence and trust,' adds Morgan.

Senior partner, Paul Maberly concludes: ‘The culture we have at Mercer & Hole disregards gender and rewards success.

‘The best examples of this are our people; both Helen Price and Henry Page joined the firm as graduate trainees and they have enjoyed progressive careers to become highly-respected partners in private client and corporate advisory respectively.

‘Successful role models certainly exist at the firm and we recognise a balanced team is best for our business.’

About Mercer & Hole

Mercer & Hole is a modern firm with roots established in 1905 by founding partner, William Mercer. Mercer & Hole has four offices in London, St Albans, Rickmansworth and Milton Keynes, and 21 partners who each work very closely with their clients on a day-to-day basis. The firm offers specialist audit and assurance services, business development, corporation tax and due diligence services, taxation and trust services, financial planning and restructuring and insolvency services.

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