Female chartered accountants still encounter a glass ceiling as they strive
to become partners at their firms, a research report by the
Chartered Accountants of Scotland concludes. A key reason is the persisting
culture of long hours. The report’s recommendations could be insightful for all
organisations seeking to support female talent.
The report, Women of ICAS Reaching the Top: The Demise of the Glass
Ceiling, is based on survey data from 623 female ICAS members working
across the UK, and interviews with male and female partners in the Big Four and
large firms in Scotland. It found that:
• In 2006, only 13% of ICAS partners in practice were women.
• Of older survey respondents (those who qualified between 1975 and 1980, aged
40 or over), 47% of women had reached partnership.
• Just 17% of the younger women (qualified from 1990 to 1995, aged 39 or less)
had reached partnership.
Too little, too late
Given that the average age of promotion to partnership is 30 for men and 33 for
women, the researchers conclude that temporal issues are unlikely to explain the
discrepancy between the proportions of older and younger women making partner.
If women were going to reach partnership, they were likely to have done so by
their mid-30s. Even when the youngest women were excluded, only 23% of women
aged between 35 and 39 had become partners. The situation was worse in the Big
Four, with only 14% of women having reached partnership, compared with 29%, 35%
and 36% of small, medium and large firms respectively.
The researchers conclude that younger women are not breaking through the
glass ceiling as had been suggested by research in the early to mid-1990s. In
fact, the evidence suggests that the position of women has actually regressed in
the intervening period. Other findings include:
• Irrespective of age, women described themselves as hard working, loyal and
dedicated, whereas they described their male colleagues as confident, ambitious
and career orientated.
• 58% of survey respondents who were working full time said they normally worked
in excess of 40 hours per week. The length of the working week was exacerbated
by the requirement to travel more extensively to service the needs of global
• Though there were some signs of flexible working arrangements, only
traditional forms, such as flexible hours and part-time working, were
• There was a consensus that women stepped off the promotion ladder from choice
as they were unable to achieve an acceptable work-life balance.
• Only 21% of older and 26% of younger women indicated they had a female role
model in their firm.
• Informal male networks that operate within firms were more prevalent than
informal female ones.
One female partner from a Big Four firm recalls: “When I first became a
partner, I walked into my first partners’ meeting and one of the other partners
said, ‘Oh, great you are here to make the coffee.’”
A male partner from a large firm said: “An easier route for women to become
partners would be to focus on a career and make partnership before starting a
Professor Elizabeth Gammie of Aberdeen Business School, Robert Gordon
University, who led the research team, says: “Despite evidence from women who
have reached partnership that it was not necessary to put their personal and
family lives on hold in order to reach the top, the organisational culture of
professional accountancy firms appears to conspire against women in this quest.
“Long hours were symptomatic of the environment and while flexible working
was available, this was perceived to damage career progression. A lack of female
role models and mentoring in general exacerbated the situation. There was also
an issue with women’s self perception, whereby they appeared to lack the drive
and ambition of their male counterparts.”
The report makes a number of recommendations for individuals, firms and ICAS
in order to address the problem of the glass ceiling.
• Partners need to be more proactive and positive in the marketing of the
flexible message to their employees, with a view to changing the culture within
their organisations so that it is recognised that traditional working
arrangements are not the only means for progression.
• Female partners should take more responsibility as role models to the younger
generations of women coming through the ranks. This is particularly relevant for
women who have achieved an acceptable work-life balance.
• Be more proactive in devising flexible working practices.
• Make a greater effort to change their working culture to accommodate the need
for employees to achieve an appropriate work-life balance irrespective of gender
and to ensure that traditional working arrangements are not viewed as the only
means of progression.
• Set up formal mentoring schemes for all employees progressing through the
• Provide tailored training packages for employees based on their individual
• Set up female support networks available to all women.
• Set up, through its local area committees, a network specifically geared
• Run training courses designed to enhance the skills that women often lack as
part of their professional development portfolio.
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