Recruitment » Is the glass ceiling thickening above CFOs?

For a decade we have seen very slow, but steady improvement in the number of female CFOs of FTSE 100 companies but 2018 brings the first faltering retrograde step, seeing numbers fall from 12 to an unacceptable 10.

The dwindling numbers of top level female accountants is a matter of genuine concern that must not go unaddressed. Excuses for poor representation (which are invariably poor) overlook the immense need for greater work to be done at all levels of the industry. Grass roots recruitment to in-career training and support in large and small accountancy firms must be improved. Women must be encouraged and driven to have higher aspirations and given better support to get right to the top.

How has this happened?

The under-representation of women as CFOs is symptomatic of an industry that has for a long time resisted change in any matters of diversity relating to under-represented groups, favouring white, middle class men. This was borne out in research funded by ICAEW Charitable Trusts, led by Cardiff Business School and HEC Paris.

The findings suggest the environment in which accountants work is modelled to favour men – client activities are male-orientated, insufficient thought is given to childcare commitments most often left under the remit of professional women rather than their male counterparts, and values such as assertiveness and confidence are required for business development – traits that are more easily and often detected in white men.

Improving access to accountancy

A change in the number of women CFOs is one that will not happen on its own. Work is thankfully underway to address this. Access Accountancy is a social mobility initiative driven by professional bodies and firms across the UK accountancy profession. It’s been established to help talented students from disadvantaged backgrounds gain access to accountancy firms. The voluntary initiative will involve a school outreach programme to help young people understand routes into the profession and tailored practical experiences of work. Signatories to Access Accountancy have committed to providing 3750 work experience placements by 2019.

Recent research released by the group highlighted what needed to be done for greater inclusivity, and recommendations including:

* Identify a board member who has accountability for socio-economic diversity

* Ring-fence a proportionate number of places for students from under-represented groups on internship programmes

* Avoid using A-Level (or equivalent) grades as a single filter for talent. Where A-Level grades are used, they should be considered in the context in which they were achieved

Work is underway

Organisations and institutions, such as ICAEW are providing companies with practical tools to empower accountancy firms to address the imbalance, enabling them to offer better support to women. Part of the commitment to support the diversity agenda, ensuring the chartered accountancy profession is a truly inclusive one, is the creation of a new diversity community. This outlines ICAEW’s work in promoting diversity, alongside resources and information, to support both individual members and firms wanting to promote diversity within their organisation. It is especially aimed at smaller firms and those outside London.

Caring about childcare

The impact on women in business of starting a family is one that should not be overlooked. Whilst maternity break times vary from one woman to another, the period away from the office leaves many lacking in confidence to return at the level at which they left.

Comeback Community and Back to the Workplace programmes run by ICAEW help members on a career break to get back into work. It can be daunting to start again after time away, so our events offer expert and peer-to-peer support and guidance on the issues that matter. There is also a community page where members can ask questions from other members who have been though the same experience.

In addition, a series of ½ day workshops, developed in partnership with CABA, aims to help members overcome common challenges and fears and offers a simple, yet successful approach to getting your career back on track.

Mapping the path to CFO

ICAEW’s Women in Leadership programme supports women working across practice, industry and public sectors who are aiming for senior management, partner or board roles. The programme has a strong personal development focus and seeks to refine and craft individual leadership styles.

Accountancy firms must however all take their share of responsibility for bringing about change in the number of women reaching senior positions.

Companies today talk more about commitments to diversity but these words must be put into action. It is not OK that only one in ten of the FTSE 100 CFOs are women. It clearly illustrates that not enough is being done in real terms. The accountancy industry must truly embrace inclusivity and diversity with all the benefits it brings to business. Dame Helena Morrissey’s goal of achieving 30% representation of women in FTSE 100 board positions must be achieved, and the accountancy industry must play its role in creating tomorrow’s female CFOs.