There's no accounting for families

Roger Trapp on the problems of balancing books and babies

Jennifer is a 30-year-old chartered accountant who - after training with a big six firm - works in industry. She is worried that having a child would mean "dropping out of the career structure". She has seen colleagues lose their positions while o n maternity leave, even though they are guaranteed that they will receive the same salary when they return to work. And part-time work at her level is not considered an option.

This case study - taken from a recently published report on women's careers in accountancy by Isabel Boyer - will sound familiar to many. Indeed, there are many variations on its theme in the report. But it is not the whole story.

In the course of research for the booklet The Balance on Trial - Women's Careers in Accountancy, published by the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, Ms Boyer found instances of women managing to hold down challenging positions - sometimes even being promoted - while taking time off or working part time because they had children.

Take, for instance, Juliet. She works part time as an audit manager in the northern office of an accounting firm. Although she did not feel able to return to work full time after the birth of her first child, she remains ambitious and is keen to keep working. Realising that her contribution can be more important at different times of the year, she works an average of four days a week. But, if needed, she may work full time for three months or longer and then take some weeks off at home when the pressureis reduced.

Or there is Beth. She had planned to work part time when she had young children, so had set out to equip herself with the necessary audit and small-business skills that would enable her to do this in her own practice. Now linked with another practice, run by a woman without children who works full time, she works three days a week, one in the office and two with clients. She is increasing her hours as the practice grows and will work an extra day when her children are older.

The link between the two cases is that the women in question have some control over their work. As Juliet says, she is responsible for her work and so can use her own judgement to make her job work. She decides when she wants to work, organises cover, manages relationships with her clients and keeps her colleagues informed.

More common is the experience of Pat. She sees the culture of the company she works for as a barrier to progress. She meets her targets and receives good reviews for her work, but feels her superiors will not promote someone who works part time.

Like many companies, hers sets great store by long hours. If work is managed efficiently and mothers go home at a reasonable hour, it is interpreted as a reduction in commitment.

Questioning such policies and encouraging companies to change them is the purpose of the report by Ms Boyer, who, after spells in banking and industry, runs the Matrix Consultancy, which advises employers on work and family issues.

The findings of the research, which was supported by the UK and Ireland's six accountancy bodies, need to be borne in mind by all members of the profession because women now account for 14 per cent of their numbers. And, thanks to an acceleration in the past decade, this proportion is growing. Among members under 35, the proportion of women is nearly 30 per cent, while among students it is 36 per cent.

But although the barriers to women entering the profession seem to have been largely overcome, women accountants, like their counterparts in other professions, start to fall behind male colleagues later in their careers. Male accountants are twice as likely as women to become partners in larger practices, and twice as likely to become company directors. Women tend to earn less than men - not because of unequal pay for equal work but because of unequal access to senior positions.

The accountancy bodies themselves are hardly blazing a trail here. The Chartered Association of Certified Accountants has, in Anthea Rose, a female chief executive, while the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland followed the lead of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants and the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Ireland in electing a female president. Sheila Masters, a KPMG partner, is in the running to become the first woman president of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales after last week declaring herself a candidate in this year's vice-presidential poll.

Ms Boyer believes these organisations could do much to change the status quo. As well as recognising that the issue is central to the whole profession, they should develop a clearer understanding of how the profile of the profession and the needs of members are changing, improve services for women, provide employers with information on women's career issues and set a good example on employment practices.

But women can also help themselves by informing their professional bodies of their concerns, giving their support to bodies such as Women in Accountancy and, when in senior positions, supporting those coming through the system.

This argument is not merely for the altruistic. Pointing out that permanent changes in society and the workforce make old-fashioned employment practices untenable, Ms Boyer makes a business case that is guaranteed to appeal to accountants. If employers, influenced by the professional bodies, do not make the changes needed, there will be an increasing waste of talented people who cannot find a way of working within the system.

"Wastage is bad for employers, bad for women and bad for the prestige of the profession as a whole," she says. "The profession cannot afford to train large groups of women and then watch their potential being wasted as they are unable to get to the top. The cost of doing nothing will increase over time, and lost subscriptions from women members who leave the profession could considerably dent the bodies' finances."

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