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Accountants count the cost

AT ONE time accountants were responsible for ensuring that the financial records of individuals and organisations were kept accurately and met the legal requirements. From that stereotypical image stems the idea of the accountant as a boring male number-cruncher.

Although the archetype persists to some extent accountants now perform a far wider range of functions in financial and general management. Many are now chief executives in industry, commerce and the public sector. Many more are management consultants. As a result, the professional has grown eightfold.

Trainees entering the profession used to be school-leavers. Today nearly all are graduates recruited from every discipline. With similar numbers of men and women graduating, women are entering accountancy in fast-growing numbers. A survey of the career attitudes of young male and female accountants last year reveals both their views on careers. Conducted by the Institute for Employment Studies on behalf of Women in Accountancy, the survey questioned 745 professionally qualified accountants aged 40 and under from the six major UK accountancy bodies.

Both men and women identify strongly with the profession and think they have been well trained. They report high levels of job and career satisfaction. Asked to agree or disagree with a series of statements, 82 per cent enjoy their job. Similarly, 77 per cent of men and 72 per cent of women say they are doing interesting work. More women than men say they have no regrets about choosing accountancy.

It was found that accountants spend a significant amount of time doing extra work, many doing it at home. Their total extra working hours add up to about a quarter of their contractual hours, which average 35 to 38 hours a week. The report says: "Men work significantly more extra hours than women overall although there are clear differences by sector, with respondents in the public sector working fewer extra hours and those in industry more."

There is an unmet demand for part-time working, with 32 per cent of women and 9 per cent of men who work full-time wanting to work part-time or in a job share. However, more than two-thirds of women with experience of working part-time said it reduced their career opportunities, and that they could not further their careers without working full-time.

There is a lot of similarity in the job factors which men and women consider important. Most important is having a balance between work and family life, with over 80 per cent rating it important. Other features were control over workload, good pay, professional development opportunities, and the chance to develop management and business skills.

The survey found significant differences between men and women regarding equal opportunities and career barriers to women. Some 53 per cent of women disagreed with the statement that "in accountancy men and women have equal career opportunities" while only 22 per cent of men did so. Almost two-thirds of the women agreed that "most women who get to the top do not have family commitments" and "many men appear to think that women are pursuing their careers on a level playing field, but that many women believe that they have a significant number of additional hurdles to overcome".

It says part-time work should be valued as highly as full-time. Imaginative schemes should keep people on career breaks in touch with developments. Women should get the job moves which will enable them to compete for senior posts. Development centres might be used to help high-fliers assess their development planning. It suggests mentoring schemes and women's support groups to encourage networking.

'Accountants with Attitude: a Career Survey of Women and Men in the Profession' by C Jackson & S Hayday, from Grantham Book Services (01476 541080).