Accountancy opportunities abound for women – but challenges remain – economia

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Author: ICAEW
Published: 07 Mar 2023
Starting out in her audit career as the only woman in a team of 17, Caroline Smale knows what it’s like to work in a male-dominated environment. Fortunately, growing up with three brothers and understanding the offside rule – alongside her can-do attitude – not only made it a non-issue, but helped her to gain the respect of her male colleagues. 
“I’m not sure if my first day was more of a shock to me, or to my male colleagues,” she jokes. “After a while, they realised that they could treat me as they did the others; there was no special dispensation because I was female.”
That’s not to say she hasn’t experienced first-hand instances of discrimination over the years, from sexist comments to the assumption that her male assistant was in charge – even criticism about the pinstripe trouser suit she once wore. “All in all, those instances were few and far between. There has been a significant shift.”
Despite that shift, Smale is mindful of the lack of progression by women at the most senior levels. Although progress towards gender equality is undeniable, we do need to accept the uncomfortable reality that women continue to face different challenges to men in the workplace and in society as a whole, Smale says. 
It’s time, she says, for the profession to think more creatively about challenging some of the myths about senior roles. “People may think that a role has to be 60 hours a week, so why not split it in two? You might get more women applying for those roles. I don’t mean a job share – I mean actually splitting the roles.”
Smale speaks with experience about the benefits of flexible approaches to work. Earlier in her career, she was able to juggle being a single parent with two young children and the demands of an audit manager role, thanks to the support of one of the firm’s partners. “When I returned from maternity leave, he said ‘we’d like you to come back, but we don’t think you’ll want to come back full time’. At that time, part-time working was not a thing within the profession.”
Another thing she has learned over the years is that people – and women in particular – shouldn’t make any assumptions about those in charge understanding their career aspirations. Smale’s advice is to be explicit about what you want. “Seven or eight years ago, I had a conversation with the managing partner. I said: ‘What about me being a partner?’ And his response was: ‘You’ve never said that to me before. I thought that you were were happy as you were…’” 
She admits that one of the biggest barriers she has faced over the years has been her own self-doubt. “I don’t think I’m alone there. People talk about impostor syndrome all the time. But there’s lots of research that shows if you put a job with 10 characteristics, women will say they can’t do three of those. The man, however, will say he can do seven. The one thing I would say to my younger self is: ‘You’ve got this’.”
As concerns about the attractiveness of the profession escalate, not helped by bad press about audit failures, Smale says addressing some of the negative perceptions about accountancy careers is one of the biggest challenges facing the sector – and a subject that Smale, in her capacity of chair of ICAEW’s Practice Committee (IPC), is keen to tackle head on. 
“How do you show young people that a profession is a good thing to be part of when they want to be influencers or gamers? How do we get people to realise that having that profession behind you is good – not just for the individual, but for society as a whole?”
“Doing the right thing is part of our ethical code. Businesses run with the help of accountants, business advisers and auditors so that people can invest safely. There’s so much that accountants do for society at large, but people just can’t quite see that big picture.”
Getting those kinds of all-important messages out is one of the reasons why Smale has been so actively involved at ICAEW; she joined the IPC as her first active member role seven years ago after a call for volunteers. When, three years later, she was approached to take on the chair role, her managing partner agreed to “make some space” to allow her to step up to the role. 
Having completed two two-year stints, Smale is preparing to step down from the practice committee in June, although she retains a role chairing ICAEW’s members and commercial board, as well as a seat on ICAEW’s main board. Smale says she is delighted to be leaving the IPC on a high. 
“The practice committee is in a really good shape; there were three people that wanted to take on the role of chair. I’m proud that people have seen what I do and want to take it on. That, to me, is the biggest compliment anyone could pay me.”
It’s also testament to Smale’s leadership style. “I’m not a table thumper,” she says. “I allow people to speak. I will give my opinion because my voice is part of that committee, but I try not to force my opinion on people and I don’t pick on people to speak. I’ve learned that it can be a bit uncomfortable when somebody says, ‘What do you think?’” 
Her advice to accountants interested in taking more of an active ICAEW role is clear: “It’s like anything – the more you put in, the more you get out and it gives you a chance to change things.” The pipeline of female volunteers is strong and diversity in all its forms is to be encouraged, Smale says. “We need a mix. We need that corporate memory, we need the experience, but we very much need younger people to take part in committees and tell us how the profession should be shaped. Otherwise, we will lose our relevance.” 
Smale doesn’t simply pay lip service to the idea of supporting the next generation of accountants. She has been actively involved as a mentor with her firm, acting as a sounding board to younger colleagues and helping to steer them in the right direction to meet their aspirations. It’s something she’s keen to pursue through ICAEW’s Rise social mobility programme when she retires. 
As Smale steps back from the IPC, the opportunities for women in the profession are thriving – but she is under no illusion that challenges remain. “I don’t think we’re quite there yet in terms of true equality. We need more women to put themselves out there. What I want is to help other women feel fulfilled in their careers. 
“Can women have it all? I think the answer is not necessarily all of it, but they can have a big chunk. And my advice is don’t beat yourself up if it’s not perfection. If you drop one of those plates you are spinning, just pick it up and carry on.”
* International Women’s Day (March 8) is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. In 2020 ICAEW celebrated the centenary of the first female Chartered Accountant, Mary Harris Smith, and commissioned a blue plaque in her honour. 
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