Breaking the glass ceiling in UK accounting sector

This International Women’s Day, Gemma Gathercole, Strategic Engagement Lead at ACCA UK and Emily Coltman FCA, Chief Accountant at FreeAgent share their opinions on the current state of the UK accounting sector in relation to gender diversity

The UK accounting sector has made progress towards gender diversity. ACCA is proud that 48% of ACCA members and 59% of students are female. But while that augurs well for the future, it is clear there is a long way to go as women are significantly underrepresented in leadership positions across the sector. In fact, according to a global report by Deloitte, within financial services institutions, women held 21% of board seats, 19% of C-suite roles, and 5% of CEO positions in 2021. These figures show there is still a glass ceiling when it comes to women’s career progression within the profession – with little in the way of balance between men and women in higher positions and leadership roles.

Breaking through the glass ceiling

Despite accounting being a field where women make up a significant proportion of the workforce, they are still vastly underrepresented in leadership positions. The skills, perspectives and expertise of women of all backgrounds are vital to ensuring that the accounting industry remains competitive, innovative, knowledgeable and representative. Especially at a time where the industry is seeing a significant skills and talent shortage, and the economy is  precarious to say the least. The accounting sector needs to ensure the industry is welcoming and accessible for women, through apprenticeships and other skills-focused initiatives, whilst finding new ways to retain existing talent.

Commenting on this issue, Gemma Gathercole, Strategic Engagement Lead at ACCA UK said: “In recent times, accountancy has also seen a surge in the need to be more digital – data and software are becoming a major part of the business and our services. It is therefore vital that we are actively training women and girls into the sector to encourage this innovation across all firms. There are so many ways to achieve a more diverse team in firms – from providing mentorship and networking opportunities, providing a flexible work-life balance to cater to all women, and ultimately, by embracing a range of skills.”

According to a recent FreeAgent report looking at what accountants required in order to prepare adequately for the future, one third (33%) stated that gaining an understanding of newer technologies was the most important factor for future-proofing their role. Other factors impacting the role of accountants include the ability to strategically identify areas of growth (52%,) learning about new technologies such as app integrations (56%) and developing technical skills (49%). These elements will be – and already are – essential for the future of accountancy amidst the ongoing implementation of Making Tax Digital (MTD), the biggest shake up to the tax system in decades, as well as ongoing economic uncertainty.

Embracing flexible working

ACCA’s 2023 Global Talent Trends report found that while men and women valued hybrid working almost equally (at 88% and 86% respectively), women felt the benefits of remote working more significantly. In the survey, 73% of women felt they were more productive when they worked remotely, compared to 66% of male respondents. Women also felt better able to manage the impact of remote working on collaboration and engagement, with a lower percentage reporting they found collaboration harder when working remotely (43% in comparison to 52% of male respondents), or that they felt more disengaged.

Emily Coltman FCA, Chief Accountant at FreeAgent said: “While it’s positive to see that accountancy is approaching gender balance when it comes to junior roles within the profession, it’s a different story when you look further up the chain of hierarchy. Analysis of the profession in recent years suggests there is somewhat of a glass ceiling when it comes to women’s career progression – with far less balance between men and women in higher positions and leadership roles.”

With flexible working becoming more common in the accounting sector, women can use this to their advantage. Flexible working arrangements such as job sharing, remote work, and part-time work can help women balance their work and family responsibilities while continuing to advance in their careers. It is important to negotiate for these arrangements early in one’s career and to seek out employers who are supportive of flexible working.

As Coltman suggests, clearly there’s more that needs to be done to try and address the inequality that exists in the industry, and the post-pandemic era provides the perfect opportunity to do so. Providing opportunities for flexible and remote working – as some practices are already doing – will be the key to attracting and retaining female talent and, hopefully, helping to shrink the gender discrepancy at senior levels as women progress in their careers.

Ultimately, removing the glass ceiling for women in the accounting profession is a complex issue that requires a multifaceted approach. But it will take considerable efforts from individuals, organisations, and society as a whole to overcome these challenges. Hopefully we will see more opportunities created in the future for women to advance in their accountancy careers.

Advocating for Change

Finally, women in the accounting sector can advocate for change within their own organisations and the industry as a whole. However, considering there are fewer women in leadership positions, this poses its difficulties. To deliver change, it is important for senior women to mentor and advocate for women as well as challenging their organisation. This includes pushing for diversity and inclusion initiatives, promoting flexible working, and encouraging the development of women in leadership roles. Additionally, participating in industry groups and organisations that work to promote gender diversity and equality is strongly encouraged.

Ultimately, breaking through the glass ceiling in the UK accounting sector requires persistence, determination, and strategic thinking as well as support from colleagues in the wider profession. As those 59%/48% stats from ACCA show women are now strongly represented but we need to build on that by taking bold steps.  Women need to  build strong networks, develop key skills, seek out mentors and sponsors, be visible and assertive, embrace flexible working, and advocate for change. By doing all that women can to overcome the barriers that prevent them from reaching their full potential in the field of accounting.