Accounting in Australia: An equal playing field?
Chris Sheedy reports from Australia on the issue of gender equality in accounting and the rise of flexible working.
When Marina Go, now General Manager of Hearst Publications at Bauer Media, first decided she wanted to become a journalist she faced a mountain of opposition from her parents. Journalists all smoked and drank too much, they said. The industry was no place for a woman, they argued.
Only after Marina convinced her parents that it was her true passion (and that she would live a healthy lifestyle!) was she able to begin her long and successful career, which included editorships, senior management roles and, more recently, non-executive director roles at Netball Australia and The Apparel Group. She is also currently Chair of National Rugby League club Wests Tigers.
Marina’s brother, however, would have been encouraged into whatever field he liked. After all, business was for men. That attitude is one of the problems facing women in business today, she says.
“There is a lot of literature that talks about the way boys and girls are treated differently when they are young, and the differing expectations around them,” says Marina, who has recently published a book, Break Through, about her own career and the various challenges she has faced. “You can't help but be impacted by that.”
Are times changing?
Among CAs aged under-45, in Sydney at least, the gender balance is now even. Could things be changing as the new generation comes through?
Natalya Ferris CA has considered this question. She is one of the young ICAS members living and working in Sydney. Natalya has been in Australia for three years and is currently an Assistant Manager, Audit, for BDO. Previously she worked in accounting in the UK for six years.
It's not as if you are treated differently as a woman. That doesn't happen. But still the gender imbalance in senior management roles remains.
“I think the topic of gender diversity has come to the forefront since I have been in the industry but it is still very rare to see a female partner,” Natalya says.
“At the lower levels there are a lot of women but as you move up the ranks, that number dwindles.”
In the audit division at BDO Sydney, in fact, the most senior female is a Manager. This is fairly typical across the industry. The roles of Senior Manager, Principal and Partner are typically exclusively male domains.
“At BDO we have women's forums and we have women's groups and the Partners are very conscious of the gender issue. They do want things to change. But it doesn't happen and nobody really knows why,” Natalya says.
“It's not as if you are treated differently as a woman. That doesn't happen. It's not as if people think that women should be at home - that attitude has died off. But still the gender imbalance in senior management roles remains.”
Having spoken with several female colleagues about the issue, Natalya says one of the obvious causes is the fact that the stage of life at which people tend to make Partner - the mid to late 30s - coincides with motherhood. As politically incorrect as it may seem, it is a simple fact.
“You cannot be an auditor and be hands-on with raising children. You just can’t work 70-hour weeks and also have time for your kids,” Natalya says. “But looking at it from a different angle, I also think that sometimes women are not as ruthless as men.”
Natalya’s final point is one with which Marina agrees. “I think when women take senior roles we are grateful,” Marina says. “But men don't feel grateful or lucky to have their roles. They feel they have earned it. I think women need to feel more deserving of their roles, as opposed to grateful.”
Ten years ago we were working on paper and everything was kept in filing cabinets. Now everything is digital and in the Cloud, so flexible work policies will likely continue to develop and mature.
The rise of flexible working
So with motherhood and the different attitudes of females towards work, should women simply give up on the idea of equality within the senior ranks?
Absolutely not, our experts say. There is plenty of reason for hope as the next generation comes through.
Technology is making flexible working so much simpler, more accessible and more acceptable, Natalya says. Good businesses wanting to hold on to great talent will make the most of this.
“Ten years ago we were working on paper and everything was kept in filing cabinets,” Natalya says. “Now everything is digital and in the Cloud, so flexible work policies will likely continue to develop and mature.”
Then there is the fact that the new generation has been brought up very differently. Young men have seen their mothers go to work, and have been taught that women are equals. And young women are no longer being told that certain industries are not for them.
“My sons are aged 22 and 18 and have been brought up surrounded by savvy and smart girls,” Marina says. “The boys have no expectation that they will be treated differently or have better career opportunities, and neither do the girls, which is even more important.”
“A lot of the young women who are friends with my sons are incredibly impressive people. There is no way on earth you're going to hold them back. They are never going to think they can't go for something. So I have hope for the future because I think the next generation is going to radically change everything.”
Do you think there are gender equality issues in Australian accounting? Let us know in the comments below.