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Finance can press for progress on International Women’s Day

The theme for International Women’s Day this year, which falls on March 8th, is ‘Press for Progress’. Here in Wales, ACCA will be celebrating with an event in Swansea and will be hearing from Olympic medal winning cyclist Becky James. This year’s event will have a particular significance, marking a century since women in England and Wales were granted initial voting rights (although full enfranchisement would come later). Leading Welsh campaigners for the vote such as Margaret Mackworth or those who heckled David Lloyd George will be remembered and leading Welsh businesswomen such as Hayley Parsons, Deb Barber and Laura Tenison celebrated.

The contemporary challenges facing women in business are more complex, but no less urgent. The movement towards gender parity is, unfortunately, far from unnecessary. Although it is forty years since the phrase ‘glass ceiling’ was first coined to mean a barrier to career advancement, women are still under-represented among CEOs, CFOs, and senior management in large companies.

The finance sector is filled with ambitious and driven young people who have the potential to go on to do great things. It is important that as leaders in business we all – regardless of gender or social background – actively promote the goals of diversity and opportunity. We should do all we can to ensure the path to the top is no less clear for some than others

Gender equality and empowerment for women and girls is one of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. Yet, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2017 estimates that gender parity will take over 200 years to be realised worldwide. Data from the same report also shows that women in leadership roles encourage the hiring of more women at all levels.

Getting women into positions of leadership is the key to closing the gender gap across industry sectors, and in business and finance we can lead the way by providing a positive example in both our actions and our successes.

ACCA was the first professional accountancy body to admit a woman, Ethel Ayres Purdie, who joined in 1909. Ethel was a suffragist and used accountancy to fight for women’s rights in the UK. Over a century later, ACCA is still leading the way amongst accountancy bodies when it comes to diversity at the top.

ACCA has  thrived under the leadership of our chief executive, Helen Brand OBE. This year, 58% of our 36 Council members are women, as are 55% of ACCA’s senior staff. I believe that our leadership has a direct impact on the diversity of our membership; 46% of our members and 56% of our students are women, and we have students  and work in more than 180 countries.

Progress towards equality does not only concern the responsibility we have to  shareholders to be diverse and representative; there is also a clear business case for advocating for more women in leadership. In 2016, a comprehensive study of gender diversity across European firms by the International Monetary Fund identified there to be “a positive association between corporate return on assets and the share of women in senior positions”. As finance professionals, this is something we cannot ignore.

It is particularly important that we have these discussions across the profession in the here and now. Accountancy has never provided a greater opportunity for individuals with the talent and ambition to lead business and to work across borders and time-zones.

Technology and the opening up of global markets have also reduced traditional barriers to entry to the profession. From flexible learning to computer based exams, ACCA has always sought to be at the forefront of innovations which enable aspiring professional accountants to reach their potential regardless of background.

This means we should emphasise that gender equality is not a zero-sum game. This is about talent first and foremost. There are clear benefits in making sure that the talent pool of senior business leaders deepens as demand grows for the strategic insight of professional accountants.

As we look to the future, it is vital that we do not forget the work which needs to be done. There is a real need to recognise that overcoming the contemporary challenges requires conscious effort and professional judgement. Recent research indicates the importance of firms questioning their own recruitment processes, to make unconscious bias isn’t a factor in choosing candidates who most resemble the hiring team.

Professional accountants well understand the need to apply scepticism and scrutiny to workplace decision-making. So we must be willing to display this same rigorous approach to going beyond the numbers into our own leadership teams.

In 2018, we should reflect on and celebrate how far we have come in the last 100 years, but not fool ourselves into thinking that the work is over. There is more to be done!

Lloyd Powell is Head of ACCA Cymru Wales