International Women’s Day 2019

The theme for International Women’s Day 2019 is #BalanceforBetter. It proposes that gender balance is a business issue, not a woman’s one. Given ACCA was the first accountancy body to admit women to its membership, we tend to agree

One hundred years ago, ACCA’s first female member Ethel Ayres Purdie was just the beginning of a long story of ACCA women in business. Across more than 180 countries, and from all walks of life, 46% of ACCA’s membership and 56% of its student base are now female.

This is a long way from Purdie’s day when she was fighting for women to have the vote and to be allowed to stand independently – socially and economically. And while there has certainly been progress since Purdie’s time, there remains a lot to do. Fortunately, for modern women, there are more and more female role models to look to for inspiration and encouragement, as well as changing attitudes to women in leadership and the growing recognition that greater diversity and inclusion are only a good thing.

The power of role models

Julie Devonshire OBE FCCA, director at King’s College London’s Entrepreneurship Institute, has been inspired by the women who paved the way for her, not only to succeed in her own career, but also to help light the path for future women professionals. ‘The possibilities for them are really unlimited, and so they should be. I view it as part of my role to pave the way for them to achieve exactly what they want to in the future.’

Devonshire, in her role of encouraging and supporting entrepreneurs to realise their visions, is taking matters into her own hands, as only an accountant can: ‘We were taught that if we thought diversity and inclusion could be improved, the first thing to do is to count, which of course accountants are fantastic at.’

Looking at the numbers, she found that women were underrepresented in her entrepreneur programme. But why?

‘One thing we discovered was that, for men, role models don't mean that much, but for women they're very important and very provocative,’ says Devonshire. ‘We realised we needed to find amazing role models and we needed to use them to support other women to be able to step forward in this kind of space, where they perhaps wouldn't on their own.’ This has involved featuring more women on the cover of the programme’s magazine (see picture) and changing all communications and marketing so there is always at least 50% female representation.

It is hoped that this positive reinforcement will support women to be more confident.

‘Each year I see, read or hear hundreds of new venture ideas, and typically when men come into the room they'll say “I've had the most amazing idea, it's going to do this and change that and solve this”,’ says Devonshire. ‘They're very positive and confident about exactly what their idea is going to do, deliver and achieve. The idea could be good, bad or indifferent, but it doesn’t seem to matter; largely speaking, the male representation of an idea is very confident, possibly in some instances too confident.’

On the other hand, sometimes when women present ideas, they can be much more tentative, as if they’re seeking endorsement, approval or recognition that theirs is a good idea, says Devonshire: ‘We're trying to find ways to help women to not have imposter syndrome – for them to know that all ideas are valid and all ideas can be developed or moved or pivoted. We’re trying to support women to bring forward their ideas in a more confident fashion, which involves bigger amounts of self-belief.’

Devonshire’s ambition is for the entrepreneurship programme to achieve gender parity by 2021: ‘By making adjustments to how we reach out, fill our pipeline, support and bring forward entrepreneurial women, we will be the first university accelerator to achieve gender parity. And we'll do this without compromising on quality and in a sustainable fashion – that’s our dream.’

Look to the process

Melanie Proffitt FCCA, CFO at Farncombe Estate and an ACCA Council member, shares a similar ambition, which requires an equally active approach. She’s also aware that there is real work to be done around organisational culture, policies and processes if there is to be real momentum.

‘It's great talking about gender equality, it's great having the vision from the top, but it's still not happening fast enough, so something else is wrong and it'll be the policies and processes,’ says Proffitt.

Melanie Proffitt

In her view, gains can be made around recruiting and promoting for roles to address an organisation’s gender mix: ‘We need to remove subjectivity, make it easier for people to challenge their bias and the status quo.’

To this end, Proffitt is intent on nurturing talent in her key industry – hospitality.

‘We already have a good split of women to men, but many employees work in pre-existing gender roles – a lot of men are chefs and females are housekeepers,’ says Proffitt. ‘We have to challenge these stereotypical roles and encourage people. It will be addressed in our flexible working policy, by looking to promote and develop homegrown talent, working with apprenticeships and training, developing and retaining our staff and winning their loyalty.’

There are also deep-rooted cultural norms to address if more women are to aim for a more diverse spectrum of roles. This is where strong role models can again play a key role in positive reinforcement.

‘Even with a positive recruitment drive, there just isn't enough qualified women to fill certain positions,’ says Proffitt. ‘This is where role models are important to encourage women. It's not such a problem in finance, certainly with the ACCA student mix, so we have a head start in representation, but what we need to do is push that further through business.’

The entrepreneur

‘In my experience there is still a ceiling, women progress a bit slower than men,’ says Anita Kerai FCCA. Kenya-born Kerai made the leap from being a senior finance professional to setting up her own cooking business, which includes her TV show ‘Return to Kenya’ – airing on Amazon Prime in the UK, Europe and in the US – her cook book Flavours of Kenya and teaching.

‘Workmates used to grab my lunch and they loved it,’ says Kerai. 'The idea behind Anita’s Kitchen is to educate people on how to cook, how to reduce food waste, what you can do with what's in your pantry, that you don't always need to go shopping. I'm a green person; where I come from there was a lot of poverty, so I don't like to see food or water waste. That's how I started my cookery school Anita's Kitchen, to show people how to reduce meat intake and transition into being vegan and vegetarian. It's nothing “cheffy”, it's more like cooking with friends.’

The transition from employee to entrepreneur can be tough.

‘You become an entrepreneur because you want to spend more time with your family, but that isn't the case in the first few years. You have to give so much of your own time to make sure it works,’ says Kerai.

‘In the first three years you need to really push yourself. You need to be mentally, physically and emotionally strong. You need to believe this is want you want to do. I have a deadline, if it doesn't work by a certain point, I will go to plan B. I'm in a good position, I know I can always go back to work straightaway because of my qualification and my level of experience, but I've come across entrepreneurs who don't have a plan B. My advice to women is work for a few years and build up that experience before becoming an entrepreneur.’

Progressive leadership values

‘Sadly, too many people wrongly believe that when females step into their own power and “show up”, it is somehow only to challenge men,’ says Kate Turner, director at Motivational Leadership, a leadership development consultancy. ‘This is far from true. Rather, I want us to start recognising the contribution of both genders. We need to embrace the good in each gender and shave off those elements of behaviour that have no place in the 21st century.’

Turner believes we must learn to celebrate both the masculine and the feminine. We can then begin to understand which aspects to use at any given time: ‘Not because one is better than the other, but rather because combining the two can enable truly great things.’

Sustaining this will require societal and structural changes, but Turner is confident it’s possible over time: ‘In the meantime, we must look to each other and influence one another to “show up”. We can cheer each other on and, in so doing, we will also cheer ourselves on. We can then stand for what we believe in and allow others to hold us accountable for it, as we must also do for them.’

Turner’s vision is for a generation inspired to ignite and sustain the talents of both themselves and those around them, so they can make a positive contribution to the world.

‘We can’t do that when we are distracted with the “oughts” and “shoulds” of our gender (whether male or female). So, let’s embrace what and who we are right now. Let’s show up fully and influence others to show up too, so that we can get on with making the difference that our planet is crying out for.’

Diversity is a winning formula

So yes, there are lots of good things happening in terms of gender equality, but they’re yet to come through in the cold hard numbers.

‘When you look at the numbers of women on boards there's miles to go,’ says Devonshire. ‘When you look at the amount of investment for early stage entrepreneurs that's taken by women as opposed to men, there's miles to go.

‘But I'm hopeful that people are starting to think about diversity as the winning formula, rather than some kind of tick list they have to do for the HR department. I do believe that people are beginning to understand that this is about succeeding because diversity of thought is the key to success.’

Role models

Melanie Proffitt
‘Helen Brand OBE, ACCA’s chief executive, is very impressive, with her public persona and visibility. She's a role model that's very close to me and the role that I play within the ACCA; to see Helen conducting herself has provided inspiration.’

Julie Devonshire OBE
‘Jenny Tooth OBE, the CEO of UK Business Angels Association. I've always found her very inspiring, she's a great speaker, she's creating a movement, and I always like women who create movements in some fashion.’

Anita Kerai
‘My parents. They can’t read or write. My mum started driving on her own, now she does all her own banking and works for the local council. My father had his own business in Kenya for over 30 years. It shows that a bit of hard work will get you anywhere.’