Changes offer new hope for women in accountancy

By Nicole Burstow of Dow Schofield Watts

Getting on top on financesFor years, the accountancy profession has remained a bastion of tradition.

While women now make up over half the workforce, they continue to earn less than their male colleagues and remain in a minority at senior levels.

Many struggle with the lack of work-life balance and the ‘alpha male’ culture where flexible working is seen as a stigma and women are all too easily overlooked.

But things could be about to change. As a former director at a big four firm, I know at first hand the dilemma facing ambitious women in the accountancy world. Part of the problem is the structure of the industry which limits career choices.

At the one end, the big four firms are seen as the route to career success and attract the cream of the talent. Their jobs pay handsomely but the work is demanding and, despite firms’ efforts to improve matters, it is difficult to reconcile with family life. As only 18% of partners in these firms are women, there is also a lack of role models for aspiring females and attracting a sponsor can be more difficult.

At the other end are the smaller accountancy practices. Although many are very traditional, they may offer greater flexibility but not the same level of pay or experience and quality of work. So why are things changing now?

Firstly, some of the bigger firms are facing regulatory and financial pressures and are likely to have to restructure their operations and reduce partner numbers. It is hard enough to make partner but any further restrictions would result in staff seeking opportunities elsewhere. Similarly, a restructuring could put many experienced professionals back on to the jobs market.

Secondly, the nature of candidates is changing. Not only are there more women coming into the profession but recruiters also report that job seekers are becoming more entrepreneurial and want greater autonomy, while younger workers are more values-based.

Firms with alternative business models can readily tap into this talent pool by offering them a different vision, greater flexibility and greater control over their career.

Departures from the big four could also result in a range of new start-ups at the bottom of the market, while restructurings could lead to the creation of larger, specialist firms. The landscape could soon start to look very different.

The big four will remain, but they will no longer be the only option for high-flying professionals. There will be a greater variety of firms and business models and more diverse career options – from part-time and flexible employment to licensing models to shape their career on their own terms.

Finance and accountancy are a fabulous career option for women but the limited choices to date have resulted in a shocking waste of talent. The changes on the horizon will create a more vibrant and diverse market, one which recognises women’s potential and allows them to shape their career on their own terms.

Nicole BurstowAbout the author

Nicole Burstow is finance director at Dow Schofield Watts, an independent top 75 accountancy practice which offers ambitious professionals the opportunity to run their own businesses under the Dow Schofield Watts brand – and with no glass ceiling in sight!

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