How can the accountancy industry become more inclusive for women?

Ola Opoosun, Head of Support Services at caba, the occupational charity supporting ICAEW chartered accountants and their families, shares what is holding women back in the industry and what firms need to consider changing.

With women making up almost half (45%) of all accountants in the UK, the accountancy industry is no longer the male-dominated environment it used to be. Despite this progress, women continue to face challenges compared to their male counterparts.   

In a caba survey of over 400 accountants, almost two-thirds (62%) of female accountants reported regular feelings of self-doubt about their abilities within the role. When asked how this impacts them, 29% of respondents reported a heightened fear of failure (26%), heightened stress and/or anxiety (27%) and feeling like they must always be perfect (29%).  

With so many women reporting feelings of inadequacy in the workplace, we must ask ourselves - why are female accountants experiencing such a lack of confidence? And if this is holding female accountants back within the industry, what can organisations do to empower women and create a more inclusive workplace?

Ola Opoosun

Head of Support Services at caba

It’s about keeping employees interested in the firms they work for and retaining good talent so that they can continue to grow with, and add value to, the company. After investing in the skills to develop good people, we want to strengthen work environments that keep them.

Challenges for women in the workplace

Despite recent research showing that women are increasingly ambitious and committed to their careers, it’s worrying that 1 in 5 (40%) female accountants said they’re uncomfortable telling their colleagues and managers about their achievements at work.  

Known as the Tallest Poppy Syndrome, women find that self-confidence at work can be detrimental to their progression and fear being perceived as ‘too ambitious’. Our new data revealed that 80% of women said they often feel like they have to work harder than others in the workplace to prove their worth – yet they still feel uncomfortable celebrating the successes of their hard work.    

If women are not recognised for their achievements, their emotional wellbeing is likely impacted, with 3 in 5 (60%) saying they often seek approval or validation from others for their work or decisions. 

The data also reveals almost half (47%) of female accountants are uncomfortable telling their manager about areas they feel less confident in, including areas where they would like more training. This can lead to women experiencing difficulties in their professional skills. For example, nearly 1 in 5 (19%) regularly struggle to speak up or share their ideas in meetings and just over three-quarters (76%) find themselves re-writing emails to clients because they are worried it might receive a negative reaction.

If women are doubting their abilities and lacking the confidence to advocate for themselves, they will not be able to access the necessary support and training and this could hinder future career progression.

Lack of work-life balance for women

While we know that accountants face intense workloads, tight deadlines and demanding clients, this should not overflow into our personal lives. However, almost 9 in 10 (88%) women said they regularly sacrifice their own work-life balance to accommodate the needs or expectations of others in the workplace. This must change.    

Shockingly, 85% also said they have struggled to set boundaries with colleagues and/or their manager regarding their time, workload or personal priorities and a similar percentage (86%) of women said their willingness to help or please others regularly leads to feelings of resentment.   

We are seeing a rising number of women putting their own needs on the back burner, with 2 in 5 (41%) revealing that, on more than one occasion, they had not taken annual leave because they were worried about handing over tasks. 

With women seen as more likely to carry a disproportionate amount of childcare and household work, a lack of work-life balance can take its toll on both mental and physical wellbeing - leading to a greater risk of burnout. While hybrid or remote work can offer some much-needed flexibility, it can also mean much more to women as when they work remotely they face fewer microaggressions and higher levels of psychological safety – improving their mental wellbeing.   

Without flexible working practices, allowing time to invest in themselves and find purpose outside of work, we risk forcing women out of the profession.

Main image credit: MR.Cole_Photographer / Getty Images

Creating a more inclusive workplace

This data has revealed the extent of low confidence and worsening work-life balance experienced by female accountants. Organisations must focus more on championing inclusive initiatives to support women’s success in the accountancy industry.   

By investing in practices which empower women to feel confident, they can drive real change and move towards greater gender equality.

Some initiatives organisations should consider investing in are: 

1. Flexible working arrangements  

As women tend to have more caregiver responsibilities, organisations should review their flexible work arrangements to make helpful accommodations. With over a third of women (34%) saying that initiatives such as working from home and flexible hours are beneficial, employers should establish clear expectations and norms around working flexibly. Offering modified work schedules, remote work and/or reduced hours for their employees are some practical ways of doing so.   

2. Regular feedback and recognition from managers  

Feedback is an essential tool for personal and professional growth, with 33% of women saying they would find regular feedback and recognition from managers helpful. Having a better understanding of performance can help employees take on new tasks more confidently.  

3. Relevant training and development programmes  

Providing access to courses with a focus on topics such as confidence building and assertiveness helps equip women with the practical techniques they need. caba’s new Women in Accounting Hub is one example of this, with a dedicated online space where female ICAEW members can find support, events and other helpful resources.   

4. Employee wellbeing initiatives  

Organisations should take steps to gather detailed feedback on what their employees need and what makes them feel happier and healthier at work to implement appropriate initiatives. Tailored wellbeing solutions will develop a stronger working environment, with 29% of female accountants reporting that this would help them.    

5. Mentorship programmes   

For women who experience low confidence, mentorship programmes are a key solution to empower those who require support. Mentors can offer guidance on their career development and help women feel inspired to unlock their full career potential.    

6. Measurable metrics   

Organisations should track the success of their initiatives by using measurable metrics to fix any trouble spots and improve women’s experience in the workplace. This can include sharing metrics and setting internal goals with employees to progress and make real change.   

If accountancy organisations fail to invest in measures to improve women’s working lives, they’re at risk of losing some of their higher-achieving people. These are often the most difficult to replace, potentially causing significant recruitment challenges.   

By promoting a healthy work-life balance and inclusive culture, employers can take significant strides in supporting and empowering their female employees. It’s crucial for accountancy organisations to reflect on and implement the necessary strategies and resources available to create a better workplace for everyone.