Features
Faye Watts 6 Jan 2017 09:00am

Women and finance: the issues

Despite the equality agenda, finance remains an unattractive sector for female applicants. Faye Watts outlines a strategy for getting women running the numbers

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Caption: Is finance attracting all the fresh, female talent the sector needs?

Despite a recent article in The Guardian propounding the view that women feel the most supported within the accountancy profession compared to other careers, such as marketing and media, the numbers of female financial professionals coming up through the ranks doesn’t seem to be changing as quickly as we would like.

Finance may be a potentially lucrative, interesting and fulfilling career, but is it attracting all the fresh, female talent the sector needs?

Although recent statistics say more women are entering accountancy than ever, the amount of females at higher levels is still relatively low. This could reflect a number of things: the career break for starting a family; the lower number of women that entered the profession some years ago; and the time it takes to work up to senior or partner level. We should now be aiming for new recruits to be reflected in future partnership and senior levels in line with their male peers.

Some women will never return to work after starting a family and so the ratio/numbers of women at senior levels won’t quite reflect the number of recruits. But at least there should be a more proportionate balance.

Back to the beginning

The Fear Factor, a recent report by Maths Action, a sister organisation to The Learning Skills Foundation, reminds us that maths and figures still cause anxiety in girls and women. The Further Maths Support Programme says: “While the numbers of girls participating in mathematics and further mathematics in the UK has grown substantially in recent years, the proportion of
A level mathematics students that are girls is 39% and for A level further mathematics the figure is 28%.”

What can be done?

 It would be good to see more education in schools about money and finance, independent of maths as a core subject. I’d like to see teachers reminding young pupils that abilities can be developed and enhanced, and if you are not good at maths now, this is a point for improvement and doesn’t mean you can’t become better at maths and understand financial matters with the right education. It’s important not to pigeonhole students. Girls studying maths (and sciences for that matter) should be exposed to women, famous and otherwise, who have done well in complementary professions.

This can be done through biographies, female-led films, and by inviting local professionals to come in to talk to students about the different roles that could be open to them. We should engage older female students to tutor or mentor younger students, and this may encourage and educate both generations.

Careers advice needs to be clear that there are jobs out there at every level within finance, with specialist roles including banking, wealth management, accountancy, foreign exchange, financial advisory, asset management, credit control, bookkeeping, insolvency and financial analysis. And it should also be highlighted that such finance roles exist in more creative sectors, such as fashion, media and entertainment.

Overcoming stereotypes

Although we are slowly losing the image of the older man in the grey suit with a briefcase, it’s still persisting. Accountancy is still sometimes associated with being an “old school” profession and this may feed through to the public, but this is definitely changing in reality as emerging technologies enable us to work more flexible hours to support our multi-faceted lives, as well as work anywhere.

I’d like the profession, as a whole, to think about enlightening people to the fact that we are not just about maths.

More than anything else, accountancy and finance are people professions. While you are working with figures, you are often also working with people; with the possibility of having to deliver disappointing news every day. We have to explain and educate others on our decisions, and for this we need empathy, logic, patience and often a degree of charisma to be able to deliver the difficult news. An accountant or finance professional without some measure of emotional intelligence will not go far in their career.

There have been studies looking at emotional intelligence, or emotional quotient (EQ), and many have come to the same conclusion: there are notable differences between EQ levels of men and women. One study, run by Dr Steven Stein, concluded: “While women seem to have significantly stronger interpersonal skills than their male counterparts, men appear to have a stronger sense of self and deal better with stress.

“These findings may have important implications in the workplace,” says Dr Stein. “In the past, men may have dominated the upper corporate echelon partly due to their high level of stress tolerance. But now as people skills are becoming more important, women’s higher scores in interpersonal areas will help them to reach higher levels in the corporate world.”

Women bring passion, integrity and a genuine sense of concern, which is fundamentally what a client wants, and so make great advisers. This reflects on their credibility and is great for referring new business. Highlighting the people side of financial professions may go a long way to helping women find them attractive.

A good job for women

While those just entering the profession may not be overly focused on having children, pointing out that a career in accountancy or finance has the potential to combine well with family life may be another way to entice young women. There are many online software platforms and more practices are running their business in the cloud. This has huge potential for working at home, with flexible hours, while families are young.

In my years in the profession I’ve haven’t seen much sexism within an accountancy setting. The topic of the moment is equal pay, but whether there is any discrimination within the financial sector is not necessarily clear. I’m not sure if there’s any hard evidence to support such pay discrepancies or sexism. However, there are certainly some areas of discrimination when women have families over taking the time they need to support their family.

And in a recently televised interview, women at senior executive level of a leading accountancy firm said they still felt the gender pay gap was prominent. Apparently, although in excess of 40% of their executive board members are women, only around a quarter are making partnership.

But professions such as accountancy and financial planning are excellent choices for those who want to return to work after having a family. Anyone who keeps on top of industry changes should be able to pick up their career again.

Diversity

The Big Four firm PwC is actively campaigning to tackle diversity, which will hopefully encourage many of the smaller firms to follow suit. Its Inspire to Lead interviews (available on YouTube) actively address gender equality in the workplace. The government too, has released a Women in Finance Charter, to address gender balance across financial services.

Last year, Cranfield School of Management said that although there are more women in FTSE boardrooms than ever before, the rate of growth is slowing and is now at its lowest point since September 2011. I think in the financial arena this discrepancy is slowly shifting, but perhaps there is still a lack of confidence and assertiveness in the profession enabling women to push themselves further up the ladder; or maybe the ceiling is being held low by employers? We do need to be sending out the right message to young people from the profession as a whole.

Although gender equality is not the subject of this article, the more the divide is bridged, the more confidence will be spread among young women to encourage them to follow a career in finance as a balanced and fairly paid profession. Simply put, the more positive press there is out there on the subject, the more we can encourage young girls to consider that finance is a viable career choice.

Getting personal and political

There is another, bigger picture. Understanding money and finance is empowering, both personally and politically. All over the world, women are repressed to more or less obvious degrees. This can only be countered by more women taking more powerful roles and having more knowledge and influence – and that includes having control over money and finances for personal use and for organisations. You could argue that money has more sway than politics, and so it certainly helps to understand financial matters when being involved or even opinionated in politics.

I believe it remains the duty of women in financial professions to shine the light on the careers available for youngsters and in particular so that young women can feel fairly treated in finance roles, and we need to play a pivotal part to help improve our working environments and opportunities.

Faye Watts is a founding partner of FUSE Accountants LLP and is actively campaigning for women to be encouraged to become more involved with financial matters and understanding. She sits on the advisory boards of a number of companies, including Funny Women and Sister Snog.

ICAEW has an online group for women returning to work: ion.icaew.com/comeback-community


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