Keen to lose its longstanding reputation as a male-dominated environment, great strides have been made within the professional services sector to become more equal. Here, two women at different stages of their careers share their experiences of working in the world of accountancy, and what more they believe needs to done. North East Times talks to Vicky Baker, head of audit at Leathers, and trainee Lesley Meek
Traditionally, professional services has been a very male-dominated sector. Did this ever put you off wanting to go into accountancy?
Vicky Baker: No. Historically there have been a lot of challenges faced by women in the sector but the recent pushes for greater representation on major company boards by women is starting to set a new standard. Professional services rely heavily not only on a person’s technical and business acumen but their ability to communicate and adapt to a whole spectrum of situations. By bringing together different personalities and points of view, businesses are able to get better solutions and the best way to do that is through greater diversity of staff and experience.
Lesley Meek: I came into accountancy less directly than a lot of graduates: my degree is in biology and I worked in a few fields before finding work in accountancy and realising that I enjoyed it enough to pursue it as a career. I didn’t realise quite how male dominated it could be until I started working in the sector and saw the disparity, particularly in management roles. I did find it a little daunting, especially coming from a field like biology which is among the least male-dominated sciences.
It didn’t necessarily put me off the sector, but I think it helped me decide to work in a smaller firm where the gap was less, rather than one of the large companies. Even from the first interview with Leathers the fact that both of my interviewers, who would later become my managers, were women stood out. It’s been great to join a business where, from the very start, it’s been clear that the potential to progress is open regardless of gender.
What is your experience of working in the sector so far. Do you think gender stereotypes still exist?
VB: Overall positive but not without its challenges, especially in the early days. During your time as a junior you face a lot of moments where your experience and knowledge are challenged and you have to have strength of character and a belief in your own abilities to be able to keep pushing in this sector. As a woman there were occasions where I felt this more acutely, but I’ve seen changes even in as recent as the last ten years. People now are much more focussed on the quality you deliver and the strength of your expertise and respect those attributes above gender.
LM: I’ve been with Leathers for about six months, and I can’t say I’ve ever felt judged or taken less seriously as a woman. It’s a field that rewards hard work and attention to detail, but tea-making and secretarial duties are communal here and not delegated to women! Our new graduate cohort of five has three women, including myself, in addition to the three women already in our department, so it’s great to not be the lone woman in a team, which has been the case in previous roles. I think that it helps that our office is so collaborative, and everyone is willing to help each other, rather than compete to progress.
Is enough being done to accommodate flexible working, such as for women who wish to take a career break or have a family to raise?
VB: If you had asked me this question when I started my career I think my answer would have been very different, but in today’s workplace the accessibility of flexible working is so great that women now have choices available to them beyond that of career or family. It is now possible to have a successful career and a family at home (I have two young children) and there are now far more people who are juggling the school pick up, breakfast meetings and client deadlines. It takes discipline, commitment and a significant level of organisation, but with firms now supporting staff at this stage of their life the hard lines of having to be at a fixed desk 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, are now much softer. As long as firms continue to be agile and adaptable to modern life - as we have here at Leathers, where our managing partner Michael Leather is hugely supportive - more women will have the opportunities to continue and develop their careers at all stages of their life.
LM: I think it’s historically been a problem in the sector overall, but that’s changing. It’s a field well suited to remote and flexible working, and with technological advances there’s no reason most people can’t work remotely or flexibly. It’s not something that’s affected me personally yet, but it’s fantastic that these opportunities are available in our firm and that Michael is so supportive. Especially as someone who has joined the field a bit later in life than most graduates, it’s great to know that that choice and opportunity is there.
Is this an attractive sector to work in for a woman? What more needs to be done?
VB: When you look at the graduate cohorts coming through today they are very well balanced between men and women, so yes it’s definitely attractive to women. Our most recent intake at Leathers reflects that pattern. The most challenging time for anyone wishing to join the accountancy profession is the early years of study to qualification. Traditionally, once qualified, staff look to step up the pace and propel their careers forward and this is where firms really need to support their staff to retain the best talent. I think as long as firms recognise the role they play and support individuals through that journey, then whatever challenges people face can be overcome.
LM: I think there’s been a marked rise in the number of women who enter the sector, the hurdle is whether those women make it to senior roles. It’s a field where people can flourish despite their background. Our office has a mix of graduates and non-graduates, and most of our graduates come from non-accounting backgrounds. So, it’s a great choice for school leavers, graduates and people looking for a career change.
I think some women might be put off by the perception of the field as being a bit dull, but that’s very inaccurate, I’ve been really surprised by how social accountancy is. Leathers places a lot of value on client relationships and networking has been an important and enjoyable part of my job so far. I’m just starting my ACA studying and the firm has been supportive and gives us plenty of support through our training.
I think going forward, there should a focus on addressing the gender discrepancy at the top of the sector. There have been initiatives by bigger firms to increase the number of female partners, but I think there should be more support from the beginning of people’s careers. I also think there should be more focus on equal parental leave, to give men more opportunity to play an equal role in family care.