Special report: Global experts discuss how to break the glass ceiling
Breaking the glass ceiling
The term “glass ceiling” was first coined in 1978 by management consultant and diversity campaigner Marilyn Loden. She was working for the New York Telephone Co when she was invited to join a panel on “female advancement” at a conference in NYC. Loden, the event’s final speaker, reflected on what the other panellists had said about why many women didn’t go as far in their careers as their male peers. Their observations were, she later said, laden with lazy stereotypes, such as women’s supposed lack of drive. Loden countered, insisting there were cultural barriers and women would often come up against an “invisible glass ceiling”.
Significant progress has been made since then. In 2022, 40% of board members across the FTSE 350 were female. Accountancy was once a male-dominated profession; now there is a roughly equal split among practising accountants in the UK, as well as among ICAS students. Further analysis, however, reveals that only 18% of FTSE 350 CFOs are female and, as recently as 2020, only one-fifth of senior roles across the top 100 accountancy firms were occupied by women. “I thought I would be finished with this by the end of my lifetime, but I won’t be,” said Loden in 2018. She passed away last year.
This special report champions the women who have scaled the heights of our profession, including Bank of England CFO, Afua Kyei CA, who talks to ICAS CEO, Bruce Cartwright CA, about her career and the unique challenge of managing a £1trn balance sheet. Read here.
We also hear from women in the profession on what businesses and individuals can do to ensure talent rises to the top. Read below.
Plus, we publish the results of the Chartered Accountants Worldwide mid-career survey, which reveals what female CAs see as the barriers preventing them from smashing through that glass ceiling. Read here.
To mark International Women’s Day, ICAS President, Clive Bellingham CA, hosted a discussion with five leading professionals examining the primary barriers to women’s career progression and what the profession can do to better foster female ambition
With the gender pay gap at 14.4% in the UK, 13.3% in Australia and 10% in New Zealand, it’s clear that barriers to women’s progress are still very much a reality, even in the richest economies.
As part of its commitment to making the profession one in which everyone can thrive, Chartered Accountants Worldwide (CAW) commissioned a survey of 3,000 industry professionals, female and male, across the globe. The aim, explains Clive Bellingham CA, then Deputy President, now President of ICAS, is to “build a global picture to understand and map the career journeys of women and discover the challenges and opportunities they face”. The discussion, titled What’s Stopping You? Fostering Female Ambition, and hosted by Bellingham on behalf of the CAW, delves into those findings to examine the tangible steps to be taken towards ensuring women in accountancy have the opportunity to realise the career they both want and deserve.
More than 60 hours of interviews were carried out for the study, which was conducted by strategic insight agency, Magenta Research. The company’s Managing Director, Dr Sarah Jenkins, explains that the resounding message was that “women are significantly more likely to experience barriers to their career progression”, with management style, company culture and unequal access to opportunities all playing a part.
As highlighted in the survey, the topic of discrimination was a running theme. All women can cite occasions where they felt they were treated differently due to their gender, and this was compounded by the sense that such behaviour was simply accepted. There were also problems around networking opportunities. But, ultimately, it was as mothers that they were most likely to face obstacles. To drive change, Jenkins said, companies should support women – prioritising diversity in their recruitment, for instance, or allowing flexible work around study, nurturing an inclusive culture, supporting working parents, and facilitating training and development.
While 25% of female respondents said taking time off work to care for their child was a barrier to their career progress, only 3% of men said the same. This, says Ainslie van Onselen, CEO of Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand (CA ANZ), is in large part a result of outdated perceptions, which companies should play a role in fixing. “Men and women often think the primary caregiver should be a woman,” she says, but this doesn’t have to be the case. Van Onselen and her husband shared parenting and domestic duties equally, and company leaders could play their part by modelling this practice: “Particularly for men who are in the early stages of their careers,” she says. “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?”
The benefits of levelling the parenting playing field would be far-reaching: more women would be empowered to participate in the workforce, the pay gap would reduce and it would probably improve the relationship men can have with their children. Challenging anything within the workplace, however, whether behaviour, attitudes or simply the status quo, is not easy – and van Onselen believes mentors are invaluable in boosting women’s confidence in such situations. “My career progression has not been hampered by stereotypes within my own home, but I have felt stereotypes outside of the home,” she says. “But with the help of mentors, who’ve helped instil in me a sense of self-belief, I’ve been able to push past those challenges.”
Meeting individual needs
A fundamental stumbling block to fostering women’s ambition is the fact that workplace policies “struggle to actually address individual needs”, says Zimkita Mabindla, Partner and Director at KPMG. While there are clear overlaps and trends across women’s workplace experiences, what each person requires to get ahead is, of course, unique to their individual situation.
For the South African Mabindla, working in a company where the majority of employees speak English as a first language, she identified that to get ahead she needed to work on her presentation skills. Her employer wouldn’t fund it initially as it “was not company policy”, but after seeing her determination (Mabindla offered to pay for the course herself and take unpaid leave to complete it) they U-turned. This was fortunate for Mabindla, but it underlines the need to invest in the individual factors that make up a person’s career progression on a wider scale if we are to truly foster female ambition.
Women must invest in themselves too, Mabindla adds, explaining how a 10-month career break in 2020 led to her most successful year yet. “I wouldn’t be contributing to this discussion if it wasn’t for 2020,” she says, “because I had time to sit and say: ‘What is it that I want to achieve? What value am I going to add?’ When you take a career break, it is not necessarily a loss. You actually get time to rebrand, to rebuild, and to acquire the talent and the skills you need to lift yourself to the next level.”
Fixing the system
Joe Consedine, Director for Champions for Change and Global Women Advocacy, believes there is now a “huge opportunity for the accounting profession… to take bold action to disrupt some of the systems driving the inequitable outcomes for women”.
We must recognise “not everyone is starting from the same line. And not everyone is having the same lived experience. They’re not having the same access to opportunities or outcomes.” As a white, cisgendered, heterosexual, able-bodied male, he says, “I’m much less likely to be spoken over in a meeting. I will never experience sexual harassment. When I negotiate my salary, I’m perceived to be smart, commercial and ambitious, while my female colleagues [are sometimes] perceived to be arrogant, greedy and troublemakers.”
For too long, the narrative has been that it’s a woman’s lack of ambition that has been holding her back from thriving through mid-career into senior leadership, says Consedine. “But it is the system-bias workplace cultures and careers that are designed and valued which haven’t historically supported women to succeed.”
To turn this around, the accounting profession should work to transform itself, shaking off its perceived image “as a traditional, long-hours, high-stress, high-burnout career option that values people 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”.
Live your policies
When Sinead Donovan, Chairperson of Grant Thornton, and incoming President of the Institute of Chartered Accountants Ireland (CAI), became pregnant, she noticed “an overt shift in my peers, who were generally male at that time, and who assumed I would lose my passion, hunger and ambition”. To push back on these assumptions, Donovan became even hungrier and more driven, but in doing so made herself “deeply unhappy”.
As a leader, she felt she failed in being a true role model to women. “[Now] I am vocal about the challenges that females feel at this time in their lives, in the hope that females in my team, in my firm and in my profession will feel safe and empowered to verbalise if they’re feeling those pressures,” she says.
Leaders must embody the values they want to see but they must also be supported in learning how to deal with issues within their company, says Donavan: “Time is quite often exactly what leaders and managers don’t have, but it is critical that we give them the time and the tools to navigate what will only be a temporary flex or a temporary provision of support to their teams. Remember, whatever it is, it will be temporary, and it will ensure that the woman stays in the profession and stays in a position to raise herself to the next level.”
Individuals should also play their part in making sure destructive or exclusive behaviour is called out. “Be brave, and bring your concerns to work,” says Donavan. She wrapped up with a powerful message for business leaders, managers and the accounting profession as a whole, not simply to design policies that support mid-career women. “Most importantly,” she says, “live those policies and train your management to know how to flex with those who need support. Policies and procedures only go so far – they will not be effective without a supportive manager.”
Her final message, shared by all participants, is a powerful one for accountancy bodies such as ICAS, emphasising their pivotal role in this journey to making 2023’s IWD theme of embracing equity a reality. “We need to keep doing exactly what we are doing here today,” she says. “Ensure the issue is talked about, guide the profession as to how to navigate it, and ultimately be there for our own members if they feel they cannot get the support from their closest stakeholders.”
Watch the What’s Stopping You? webinar in full