What’s Stopping YOU? Fostering Female Ambition

Fostering Female Ambition

In this webinar – that was held on 8th March 2023 to coincide with International Women’s Day – Chartered Accountants Worldwide revealed the results of a global research study mapping the paths of mid-career women in the Chartered Accountancy profession. The study was commissioned by the Chartered Accountants Worldwide global ED&I task force and was carried out by the research agency, Magenta.

Globally, magenta surveyed three thousand female and male participants and conducted over 60 hours of interviews. This allowed us to build a global picture to understand – and map – the career journeys of women and discover the challenges and opportunities they face. During the webinar the panel discussed the findings and offered some actionable solutions to address some of the issues that have come to light.

As chair, Deputy President of the Institute of Charactered Accountants Scotland, Clive Bellingham, reflected on his 27 years as a partner with PwC. He said, “I personally have experienced the benefit of inclusive leadership, I believe that a diverse and inclusive team offers the best position to work and the greatest value in the marketplace”

Dr. Sarah Jenkins, a Director at Magenta, who carried out the global study, gave an overview of the findings. She thought it was very important that the profession was willing to take a good look at itself and what is going on within and look at what can be improved to support women moving from mid-career level into those senior positions.

Sarah went on, “Starting from the top, throughout their career, women are significantly more likely to experience barriers to their career progression than men. In the top ten barriers as suggested by the study, management style of line managers and company culture are key factors that were emphasised. However, there’s also a belief that they have unequal access to opportunities throughout their career – for example, they might not get the chance to work with different clients, or contribute to a project that might be outside their usual remit or even having the opportunity to learn new skills. They feel on the back foot compared with their male counterparts. In addition, there is a feeling of acceptance when it comes to the behaviour and the culture that goes on among their male colleagues. The study suggests that women feel they must be more tolerant than their male counterparts. Thus, it is a combination of these multiple factors; management style, company, culture, and behaviour of colleagues, which combined really knocks the confidence of women to progress into senior positions.”

Dr. Sarah Jenkins suggested that “women have a lack of confidence in their ability. Interestingly, by the time men reach their late career, they are significantly more likely to claim that they have not experienced any barriers in their progression. All the women that Magenta spoke to were able to recount experiences when they felt they were treated differently due to their gender, and all had experiences of micro aggressions.”

Dr. Jenkins said that “Eight in ten, mid-career women believe they still have a lot to offer the profession, but that women felt they needed to work twice as hard as their male counterparts. Being a woman, and being a parent is where most of the barriers lie. But, regardless, of their employment, women are still expected – even if they’re earning more than their partner, or even if they’re working hard – to be the primary carer for their children, they’re the ones that are expected to juggle family life and their career. And yet, they really value their careers, and they want it to be an important part of their life and moving forward, they may still be trying to juggle multiple responsibilities at work, and at home, and they may need a bit of flexibility to enable them to do that, but they’re no less ambitious. Indeed, seven in ten women with children under 10 years believe that they can achieve a senior position”.

If you would like to read the full report and the recommendations it makes, you can download it here.

Ainslie van Onselen, CEO of Chartered Accountants, Australia and New Zealand started by reflecting on the top barriers that Sarah discussed in her presentation. Childcare being one of the biggest barriers with 25% of women saying taking any time off work to care for their children was a hurdle for their career, compared to 3% of men. That divide, according to Ainslie, quite simply comes down to different lived experiences.

Ainslie said that “In Australia, for example, women are still doing more in the home than men – even when they’re holding down a full-time job. A recent survey from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, showed that 62% of women spend five or more hours a week on unpaid housework compared to 35% of men. There’s often a phrase that we use when we talk about gender equality which is ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. It’s often used to explain why we see less women taking on careers traditionally dominated by men. But I think it could also be used to describe men and their relationship with parental leave. Men who are in the early stages of their careers – if they don’t see male leaders and colleagues taking a career break to care for their children, then how can they ever feel comfortable doing it themselves? Therefore, in my mind, it’s not just about relieving women from the burden of sole parenting so they can be more empowered to participate in the workforce, I think there’s also a societal advantage as well, ultimately, not only just fixing the payout, but also the relationship that men can have with their children”.

Joe Consedine, Director at Champions for Change and Global Women Advocacy, Global Women has a deeply held belief that the most dynamic and successful professions and workplaces of the future will be those that embrace, attract, include, and empower diverse talent. They’ll be more innovative, productive, sustainable and profitable than those who continue with systems, processes and cultures that have served them well up to now, but won’t serve them well into the future.

Joe said “This is a huge opportunity for the accounting profession to take bold action to disrupt the systems that are driving the inequitable outcomes for women described in the research. The second is a deeply held belief about the concept of equity, and the fact that for us to begin this conversation, we must agree and accept that not everyone begins from the same position. And not everyone has the same lived experience. My story is about being a white, heterosexual, able-bodied male, I hold privilege against every diversity dimension. I have never experienced any discrimination or bias in any situation inside or outside the workplace. The systems that I operate within my career are set up for me to succeed and have been the foundation of my success. I acknowledge that my lived experience just is not the same as a woman’s. I’m much less likely for instance, to be spoken over to in a meeting and will likely never experience sexual harassment. When I negotiate my salary, it is safe to be smart, commercial, and ambitious. Sometimes my female colleagues are viewed as arrogant, greedy, and as troublemakers. So, with that in mind, I’m delighted that the research presented is putting to bed the narrative that it’s a woman’s ambition that is holding them back from thriving through mid-career and for senior leadership. But it is the systemic bias workplace cultures and careers that are designed and valued which have not historically supported women to succeed. I think the good news here is the accounting profession has a once in a generation opportunity to transform itself from what’s perceived to be a threat, a traditional long hour, high stress, high burnout career option, which values people with or without other life responsibilities into a flexible and agile, inclusive and dynamic choice for our next generation where women and men can thrive into positions of influence. And finally, we need to stop trying to fix the woman, we need to fix the system”

Zimkita Mabindla, a partner at KPMG inc – Consumer, Industrial & Mining Audit – joined from South Africa. She shared her own struggles as a black female, divorced single mother and the backlash she faced because she got divorced. She found things got even harder when she had to take time off to care for her sick daughter. She said “The issue is society is weaponizing parenting, they are trying to sabotage women’s careers, and their chances of creating tangible financial success. And that is a systemic issue, that women are asked to measure their value on intangible things, Midas Touch, woman’s love, a labour of love. And that has been the scam that has been going on for a long, long time. And I call it a sticker. Because it is driving women away from the workplace. Because most of the time, women take on additional work at home, so when they get to the office, they can’t compete at the same level as someone who doesn’t have the same kind of parental labour, because it is what that is, what it is, is labour. And therefore, you then try so hard all the time and as a result, you are always on the back foot. Added to that is the narrative that women cannot cope with positions of power, ultimately are being driven out of the workplace”.

Zimkita goes on to say that CPD is essential and that companies should offer funding towards it. She said “I had identified that I needed presentation skills to talk to clients, because we were dealing with a lot of clients. I got a quote for a presentation skills course, I took it to HR, and to some of the partners and then everybody said, it’s not our policy

Sinead Donovan, Chairperson of Grant Thornton and incoming President of the Institute of Chartered Accountants Ireland, reflected on the need for supportive managers. She said” They are the catalyst. They are the ones who must ensure policies are implemented and support is readily available. The Institute of Chartered Accountants Ireland carried out some research in July 2021, and noted the following. two out of five females claimed their gender has impacted negatively on their career, compared to three out of four males who claim their gender had no impact. And then the other fact in Ireland was that close to half of all females claimed to have personally experienced discrimination during their career in accountancy versus just over one in five males. It is clear both in our own research and that carried out by Magenta that there are issues in the profession for females and most profoundly at the crunch time of their mid-career. I understand because I have experienced it. I have come out the other side. But I do bear scars. And I don’t want anyone else to go through that experience. Those personal experiences have framed my thoughts on the issues, and more importantly, what can be done to address the challenges. So I’d like you to have two northern stars as you listen to me speak. The first the first star is we need to create an environment where females can bring their full selves to work. And the second is to ensure that management have the appetite, the training and the time to be supportive, innovative and flexible in how they manage and navigate mid-career females in their team”.

The webinar was thrown open to the audience with a number of interesting questions that the panel went on to answer.

How does one deal with imposter syndrome that stands in the way of women achieving their best ambitions?

Zimkita believes the answer is investment. She said “when I talk to young people around the imposter syndrome, I always say to them, it’s important for you to make sure that you’ve invested in your own talents, you have to find out what is it that is making you feel like you don’t belong because that’s what the issue is, we feel like we don’t belong in those spaces. You feel unable to speak during a meeting – if that’s the case, practice at the weekends. Listen to podcasts when you go to work. If you do practical things and take control of your own career and invest in yourself and your career it will make a difference. Another example might be that you do not understand an IFRS statement, so go on Google and look it up, find a podcast on the subject and you make notes. Rely on yourself, invest in yourself, it is the best thing you can do. The first thing you must always do, invest in your success, that is the best investment you can ever make.

An audience member asked Ainslie Van Onselen about how we break the perception that women who succeed in the corporate space must give up their family, while men can have both, women, it seems must choose?

Ainslie said “I think it is a myth that you can only have a career at the expense of famioy life, but you do have to take control of your own destiny. If you continue to work ridiculous hours and if you don’t your own boundaries, then yes, it will be at the expense of your family life, for men and for women. But it does seem to be a traditional stereotype of women being at home, or men going out to work and being the breadwinner. And it’s that sort of stereotype we really need to smash – it’s critical, because for women in particular, it creates this terrible scenario where you feel like you’re choosing between your potential and your career and with that comes intense guilt.

Joe was asked for his observations on male or female sponsors, what works well and what some of the challenges look like.

He said “I’m a big believer in that women are over mentored and under sponsored. I think mentoring plays a really important role in supporting and building confidence and early careers for women. But sponsorship is action oriented. I think mentoring can sometimes be quite passive. In terms of providing advice and support. When we are talking about sponsorship, we’re talking about actively elevating women into leadership positions, and then the onus on the sponsor to take accountability for that. And I think that’s under done and I think more men should be should be doing this when we say there are men are over represented in positions of leadership across our economies. We should be asking more men to be sponsoring women with accountability to elevate the him into positions that I think it’s too passive and too easy to say. We are doing mentoring and I’m having a monthly catch up and I’m having a coffee. Is that having an impact? So, let us get real. Let us get action oriented and let us be accountable around sponsorship, that’s what’s going to really make a shift.

Sinead was asked what role could non-parent women play in supporting women who are parents?

She said “In the discussion about parity we need to be incredibly careful not to marginalise females who do not have a family. The question of parity applies to males and females irrespective of whether they have families or not. However, it is acknowledged and indeed proven in this research that the most impacted people appear to be females with families in the mid portion of their careers. As such, teams and peers need to be cognisant of everyone and support each other at the different crunch times in their career.
Therefore, if females without families want to support those with families the things I have observed that can be really supportive is to cover them for evening calls, or cover on school holidays – perhaps over the summer time, or religious festivals where the pull on parents can be greater. This can be reciprocated with parents ensuring they permit females without families to have a choice of holidays and to ensure cover at that time. Another simple thing that should be observed is to ensure conversations are honest and transparent if either cohort feel unduly supported.