Smart Moves: Do women accountants really count?

This year almost half the student accountants studying with the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales are female.

Accounting has always been a popular career for women. Yet as more thirty- somethings attempt to combine work and family, accountancy, like so many other professions, loses its charm. Companies which have invested in female accountants are forced to let them go when flexible work options are unavailable.

"I, too, wanted the elusive combination of security and flexibility in a career that is usually well paid," explains Anne Jenkins, who chose chartered accountancy after studying for a degree in modern history and economics.

After doing a satisfying job for several years, she decided to work for herself, specialising in training and education.

That was in 1990. In 1993 Ms Jenkins became the youngest elected member and only the sixth woman on the 90-member ICAEW council - a fair reflection of the kind of numbers of women who stay in the profession.

Ms Jenkins also took on the role of president of a pioneering organisation called Women in Accountancy.

WIA was founded in 1992 and represents around 35,000 female accountants. The organisation is funded by five out of the six major accountancy bodies in the UK and Ireland. The group promotes good employment practices, provides a forum for sharing experiences and opportunities and is a point of contact for accountants, employers and public bodies.

"At the end of 1997, in connection with the Institute for Employment Studies, we published a survey entitled Accountants with Attitude," Ms Jenkins says. "We spoke to male and female accountants in mid-career. The findings showed that women were looking for more control over when and where they worked." Ms Jenkins has taken her views along to a series of business breakfasts all over the country. Sponsored by the recruitment consultants Robert Half, the breakfasts go some way towards changing attitudes.

"We need people to accept that if you have the capability to be a finance director or a partner then you can contribute at that level without having to work full-time," Ms Jenkins says.

In 1995 WIA published a booklet entitled The Balance on Trial - Women's Careers in Accountancy. As anticipated, the research indicated that women have not achieved positions in the profession on a par with their male counterparts.

It became clear that if women were given help with their career choices things would improve. To this end WIA has researched and published booklets on Managing a Career Break, A Career Development Guide, Working Together and Effective Self-Marketing.

The group also runs workshops in the UK and Ireland that develop these same ideas.

"For the first time women accountants are able to discuss the issues arising in their careers. We profile two women accountants and draw new definitions of success. We encourage participants to build a professional network and seek out mentors. These things appear to arise naturally for men, but are often overlooked by women," Ms Jenkins concludes.

Penelope Kenny is managing director of Emergent Management Consulting in Dublin. She is also a WIA Board Member. "Our workplace was disabling women from maximising their contribution, yet didn't show employers how to take advantage of this potential either," she says.

Ms Kenny claims that WIA has helped her to see what was possible for professional women in her marketplace as well as to appreciate the value of having mentors and role models.

"Ten years ago WIA predicted and planned for the skills shortage which is now being experienced in Ireland. WIA is one of few groups fostering workplace transformation," Ms Kenny continues.

According to Ms Kenny, WIA is very different from the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Ireland, of which she is also a member.

"Ahead of its time, visionary, WIA provides tangible and useful services to members while fostering and encouraging seminal research and thinking," she concludes.

For more information contact Anne Jenkins and WIA (tel: 0181-891 0899 or by e-mail at anne.jenkins@virgin.net)

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