Date posted: 12/06/2018 10 minutes min read

Flexibility may cost women on gender pay

The latest CA ANZ remuneration survey shows that women – and also men – seek work-life balance and flexibility. But the scarcity of real flexibility may be impacting female accountants the most.

In Brief

  • The CA ANZ Remuneration survey reveals that flexibility is the most valued workplace quality.
  • Lack of flexible work options could be costing women by contributing directly to the gender pay gap.
  • Normalising flexibility at work could help break down stigmas and shrink the gender pay gap.

By Michelle Lindsay.

In late 2017, Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand conducted a remuneration survey among 11,013 of its members across both nations. Among its most noteworthy findings was a continued gap between the average pay for male and female accountants.

A number of factors may be at play, including, the survey suggests, flexibility in work hours. Flexibility was the most important workplace feature after pay, and was cited by 57% of the survey respondents. That number was far, far ahead of the next most important workplace attribute – atmosphere and culture at 19%. Most other factors – including collaboration, leadership, recognition and autonomy – mattered to fewer than 10% of respondents. And for women, the figure citing flexibility was higher still.

The CA gender pay gap

The remuneration survey confirmed a result common in surveys of professions across the developed world – a substantial gap between remuneration for male and female employees. In Australia, the survey reported, female CAs earn an average A$155,558 a year. That’s just 72% of the A$217,356 earned by the average male accountant. And it is a similar story in New Zealand, with female CAs earning an average NZ$121,891, or 71% of men’s NZ$170,657.

Related: Read the remuneration survey

Trends and insights from the 2017 member remuneration survey

That by itself doesn’t automatically mean female accountants are being unfairly underpaid by almost 30%. As with many other occupations, most of this gender pay gap can be attributed to differences in roles and years of experience.

Nowadays, for instance, men and women are entering accounting in almost equal numbers – it was a different story 20 to 30 years ago, with men far outnumbering women. The higher-earning men are reaching their peak earning potential and hence are earning higher pay than their younger and less experienced female colleagues. Research firm Colmar Brunton, which conducted the survey, estimates that differences in roles and experience account for two-thirds of the gap in Australia and nearly three-quarters of the gap in New Zealand.

But there remains a significant gender pay gap that cannot be explained by these effects. For Australian CAs, that gap was A$20,208 a year; for NZ CAs, NZ$13,411. So what drives this pay gap for female chartered accountants?

Colmar Brunton offers some possible explanations. Simple discrimination is one: male CAs may be refusing to promote and reward female CAs as they should. Another possible explanation is that the survey simply didn’t ask about certain factors. But the researchers also suggested that the gap may be caused by “non-remuneration factors in job choice”. Of such factors, by far the most likely is flexibility.

CA ANZ Head of Members, Simon Grant, says Chartered Accountants are aware of the pay gap and that there’s some way to go before women hold senior roles in proportion to their overall numbers. “We’re committed to engaging with their profession to address the issues. We have also committed to reporting for a Champions for Change initiative that focuses on reporting gender and cultural diversity. With our own Board we saw an increase in female representation from 36% to 50% and internally at a general leadership level from 34% to 58%.”

What women want (and men, too)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, women are most likely to value flexible working conditions. More than men, female CAs feel pressure to juggle hours at the office with responsibilities as carers and to work from home. The survey shows that 75% of women rate flexibility as an important workplace attribute. The main reason is obvious: women’s lives tend to change dramatically when they have children.

The survey results reflect other findings on flexibility in the workplace. A recent PwC survey of professional women worldwide, Time To Talk, found that 95% see it as important to balance the demands of career and family/personal life.

More than men, female CAs feel pressure to juggle hours at the office with responsibilities as carers and to work from home

While women in the Chartered Accountants ANZ survey do place a substantially higher weighting on flexibility than men, this factor is also rated highly by men: more than half view it as important, and even among men, flexibility ranks as the most desirable workplace attribute outside remuneration. And flexibility is most highly rated by those aged between 30 and 49, the peak period for raising children.

The cost of flexibility

The flexibility numbers in the Chartered Accountants ANZ survey mesh with other research being done in the field of gender and pay. In particular, they reinforce the work of the world’s pre-eminent expert on the economics of the gender pay gap, Harvard’s Claudia Goldin.  

It’s clear that in many business and finance fields, taking time out from the workplace or working reduced hours will cut an employee’s lifetime remuneration. Goldin’s work shows that the financial impact of flexible work practices goes much deeper than this.

Goldin’s analysis, now widely accepted, says that women with children deliberately seek “temporal flexibility” in their work – that is, jobs that offer more flexible or remote work options that let them take time out of the workforce and that let them achieve the work-life balance they want.  

The catch is that few industries offer a ready supply of these roles – and they often come with lower pay packets and poorer promotion prospects. Goldin’s research suggests that many employers prefer to promote people who are full-time, working long hours on the premises and continuously building their relationships with clients and suppliers rather than taking five years out of the industry to have children. Such people don’t just get rewarded in line with their extra hours; they get paid a premium for their all-nighters, their weekends, and their uninterrupted employment records. And they are disproportionately male.  

This means women’s average pay declines compared with men’s as their careers go on. Goldin notes that flexible positions are particularly rare in the finance and corporate sectors and carry notably heavy financial penalties, with about half of the women who work part-time being self-employed.

And this, Goldin argues, explains most of that previously unexplained gap between male and female pay in many highly-paid roles, including accounting. The gender pay gap mostly reflects the flexibility penalty. For instance, one of Goldin’s US-based analyses shows that shortly after graduating, female MBAs earned about 95% of their male colleagues’ remuneration. But once they reached their peak years for having children and raising families, 12 to 15 years after graduation, women’s pay slid to just 57% of men’s.  

Contrast these MBAs with pharmacists – who also work in a well-paid field, but a field with almost no gap between male and female pay. Goldin noticed that the US pharmacy industry is very friendly to part-timers. It pays no real premium for working long hours, and imposes no penalty on pharmacists who take a few years off. In Goldin’s terminology, pharmacists’ pay is “linear”. As Goldin explains it, the large chains that hire pharmacists see them as interchangeable: anyone can fill prescriptions so long as they’ve done the training and earned the degree.

Related: How does your role compare?

Find out how your remuneration compares using our convenient online tool to view the survey findings

There’s no evidence that pharmacy chains are especially non-discriminatory, or that professional firms in law or accounting or business consulting are trying to keep women’s pay low. But the differences in industry structures and incentives mean that some of these professions end up with noticeable gender pay gaps. That includes accounting.

Flexible, not flexible

Many Australian women seem to be well aware that in many lines of work, flexibility comes at a cost. Businesses are taking steps to introduce more flexible working options, including part-time hours, working from home, extended maternity leave, paternity leave and more. So far it seems not to have been enough. The PwC report into women in the workplace found that just 51% feel their employer is doing what is needed to improve gender diversity. More than one-third say flexibility programs and policies exist in their workplaces, but are not readily available in practice.  

And there is a widespread view that flexible work still limits your career. Some 42% of the PwC report’s respondents were nervous about the impact children might have on their career. Almost half of new mothers (48%) said they were overlooked for career advancement because they had children.  

What’s more, more than one-third (37%) said they didn’t take the full amount of maternity, paternity or adoption leave they were entitled to, because they believed it would have a negative impact on their standing at work. A further 38% said that taking advantage of work-life balance had negative consequences at their organisation.

Modelling change  

That’s not to say that having flexibility policies and programs available doesn’t work. But the evidence suggests that employers need to do more to ease the concerns of women (and many men) about taking advantage of them. And employers who want to make these policies effective need to minimise the financial and career penalties for using them.  

Goldin says this will only happen when employers make deep changes in job design and remuneration to make work schedules more flexible for women and men.  

Many workplaces are moving in this direction, according to a November 2017 report from consulting firm McKinsey & Co in conjunction with the Australian government’s Workplace Gender Equity Agency (WGEA) and the Business Council of Australia. WGEA data from 2015–16 shows 13% of Australian companies offer eight or more formal flexible work arrangements to their employees: the most popular options include carers’ leave, part-time work, unpaid leave, flexible hours, time in lieu, job sharing, purchased leave, telecommuting and a compressed working week.

The McKinsey report argues for making flexible and family-friendly working arrangements widely available to the entire workforce, including men, non-carers and people at all role levels. That, it says, would break the perception that flexible workers are less committed and less valuable to the organisations they work for. One way to do this, it suggests, is for senior managers to model flexible work practices in their own roles.  

By normalising flexibility and restructuring roles, employers can remove the stigma that exists around flexible practices. In doing so, they can reduce the financial and promotional penalties suffered by women and men who want and need to work outside the traditional nine to five.

Michelle Lindsay is a writer and senior consultant at Crafted Financial Writing.

More from the CA ANZ Remuneration Survey

The 2017 Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand remuneration survey was conducted by independent research company Colmar Brunton in September and October 2017. While remuneration surveys have been conducted in the past in New Zealand, this is the first time that CA ANZ has run a survey in both countries.

The survey found that remuneration of Chartered Accountants in both Australia and New Zealand rose more than 2% on the previous year. In Australia, average remuneration was A$195,262, while in New Zealand it was NZ$153,285.  

Public practice accountants had the largest year-on-year increases – 4% in Australia and 5% in New Zealand.

In Australia, South Australia had the highest increase, with a rise of 3%, followed by the Northern Territory (+2.5%.) All other states had a remuneration rise of 2%.  

In New Zealand, Canterbury and regional North Island locations (Bay of Plenty, East Coast, Hawke’s Bay, Taranaki, Whanganui and Manawatu and Wairarapa) lead the way with increases of 3%. All other regions had 2% increases.

Top five survey results

Flexibility matters

Question: Aside from remuneration, what else is important to you in your workplace?  

Flexibility / flexible hours 57%

The culture / atmosphere 19%

Coaching and training 16%

Work-life balance 15%

Career development / promotion opportunities 13%

Source: Chartered Accountants ANZ remuneration survey 2017