Tips for success from senior woman in accountancy

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I joined BDO as a school leaver in 1987 and, as you can probably imagine, the world of work was very different back then.

Accountancy, like most other professional industries at the time, was heavily dominated by men.

When I started I didn’t have many senior female role models to look up to within the industry, but I knew my dream was to become a partner – one of the most senior positions in our profession. I loved dealing with clients and wanted to understand how to grow the business.

Having qualified as a tax adviser in 1990 and an accountant in 1994, my aspiration to become a partner was realised in 2000 when I passed the partner process. Having failed that process in the prior year, passing it was definitely one of my career highlights.

I initially felt very grumpy when I failed the partner process but worked with the managing partner of the firm at the time on what I needed to do to be successful, including spending one month at a business school.

Being a female in a senior position in business could be challenging. I am quietly spoken and in those days “quiet” could be mistaken for ‘not assertive enough’. Having a two year old daughter and being pregnant whilst in the partner process was also a challenge and there were times when I was concerned that I might not be taken as seriously with a young family. In 2001, I was one of the first people in the firm to work from home one day a week and this really worked for me, but it was unusual back then.

Fast forward to the present and I’ve now been a partner for nearly 19 years. Thankfully I’m able to say that a lot of good work has gone into making sure that as an industry we are doing enough to ensure that women see how great a career in accountancy can be. According to Catalyst, a non-profit organisation that encourages change to ensure workplaces work for women, females now make up around half of all accounting employees.

I’m a big believer that our industry is one of the best for women to work in, I would say that but of course, there is always more we can do. We have put a lot of work into finding solutions for the issues that rightly or wrongly – impact one gender over another, accepting that one size does not fit all.

To give you an example, we know that some women may find that having children can put a halt to their career progression, or even set them back. We also know that for some the thought of balancing a demanding role with raising a family is daunting. It shouldn’t be this way, but as a mum myself I’ve gone through these challenges and know what it’s like. Both my children are now at university and my husband and I are experiencing being “empty nesters”, but we are both very proud of the young adults they have become.

That’s why it’s so important that businesses take action and have strategies in place to help all of us when faced with different life or work challenges. There are many positive stories out there that need to be told to help parents feel more confident about career progression. There is a myth that being promoted means you have to work harder, but the key is you just have to work differently.

At BDO we always think about what we can do to foster a culture to make sure that if you need to take time for personal commitments, you know that it isn’t a problem. This ranges from ensuring people can leave the office when they need to, offering flexible working hours, organising Keep in Touch Days if you go on maternity leave or encouraging schemes like Shared Parental Leave (SPL) where both parents are able to share the responsibility of childcare. Despite a relatively low uptake in the UK overall, we are starting to see some really positive experiences from both males and females in our business who have taken advantage of the SPL offering, which is great.

I remember how I often had to leave work early to manage family commitments including school plays, doctors’ appointments and sports days to name a few. I’m fortunate to be part of a great company that understands that these family commitments don’t respect normal working hours but are actually some of the most special moments you have with your children. I found that the most important thing for me to do was to have transparent conversations with my colleagues and clients about the times and hours I was (or wasn’t) available. We often forget that the majority of people face the same types of challenges and respect your honesty and openness.

As the balance of women and men entering accountancy at all levels evens up, we now have a new challenge that we can’t ignore. We need to show that if you’re a woman and you choose accountancy as your profession, you don’t need to be Wonder Woman to rise to the top. I work with a number of women in all different levels at BDO who inspire me every day. I hope that together we can inspire the next generation of female leaders in accountancy.

Here are some of my tips for success:

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Most people will be more than happy to give it to you
  • Find yourself a sponsor – somebody who will be an advocate for you in the business. Also, seek out a mentor who can give you great advice – look for somebody who has a different perspective
  • Be prepared to challenge yourself and learn from your failures and remember that your career is a marathon not a sprint
  • Find a working pattern that works for you and the business – we are all different and have differing needs.

Wendy WaltonAbout the author

Wendy Walton is Head of Global Private Client Services and a senior tax partner at BDO.

She advises high net worth individuals on their worldwide tax position and is also a member of the Leadership team with a particular interest in partner development, gender balance and employee wellbeing.

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