- Raising the proportion of women working in insolvency may require a cultural shift around parenting duties.
- There are different kinds of work within the profession that suit people with caring duties.
- The proportion of female insolvency practitioners in New Zealand has doubled to almost 20% in the past six years.
By Fiona Smith
Alice Ruhe FCA had a double dose of “unusual” when she became a bankruptcy trustee in 2009. Then aged 29, she was young for the role and was in a specialisation in which, even today, women are rare.
People did a double-take when she introduced herself. “I’d ring somebody and say I was the trustee of the bankrupt estate and they would correct me and say: ‘Well, you work for the trustee of the bankrupt estate’. And I’d answer: ‘No, I am the trustee of the bankrupt estate’.”
Any woman who has ever been mistaken for an assistant, transcriber or waiter can empathise.
Ruhe, a partner at SMB Advisory in Brisbane, says a decade ago only about five women were both trustees and liquidators in Australia. (She became a registered liquidator herself in 2013.)
Today, women make up about 8.5% of Australia’s insolvency practitioners (55 out of 649 registered liquidators in March 2021) and 10% (21) of its 200 or so bankruptcy trustees. In New Zealand, there are 114 accredited insolvency practitioners, of which 21 (18.5%) are women.
However, with women comprising almost 43% of CA ANZ members, the reason for this gender gap is puzzling. Is it a lack of female role models in the insolvency space? A perception that insolvency is an area of high conflict? Or the perpetual juggle between work and family responsibilities?
Acuity asked three women in the industry what they loved – and didn’t – about their roles. All three say the satisfactions outweigh the difficulties. As “corporate surgeons” they try to resurrect businesses in distress, save jobs and turn assets into cash that can be returned to creditors and shareholders. When the “patient is terminal”, they try to help people come to terms with the realities, decently and humanely.
Alice Ruhe FCA: Partner, SMB Advisory, Brisbane
Alice Ruhe FCA believes raising the proportion of women in insolvency will require some cultural change around parenting responsibilities. She is frank about the fact she could not have got where she is today – and had children – if not for her husband, Steven, who is also a CA.
“The reason I can do what I do is because he took four years off to look after the kids,” she says, adding that employers need to do more to support men taking time off for family responsibilities.
Ruhe also believes firms could fast-track women at an earlier stage of their careers. “We get a lot of our males fast-tracked earlier. I think we need to fast-track our females.”
By the time she had her two children, in her mid-30s, she was already a partner and had established herself in her specialisation.
While she would not presume to give advice about when women should become mothers, Ruhe says if she had chosen to have children when she was younger, it would have been a lot harder for her to progress her career.
As for insolvency, Ruhe acknowledges it can be difficult working in areas in which people are losing their business or their livelihoods: “I often say to my juniors that no-one sends you flowers. No-one’s ever happy to see you in insolvency … you have to be quite resilient. We are definitely the grudge purchase.”
Picture: Alice Ruhe FCA.
“No-one’s ever happy to see you in insolvency … you have to be quite resilient. We are definitely the grudge purchase.”
But she points out that a higher proportion of women work in family law – an area of high conflict – than in other legal sectors, “and I can’t see a huge difference.”
Thea Eszenyi FCA: Senior Executive Leader, Insolvency Practitioners and Financial Reporting & Audit, ASIC, Melbourne
Thea Eszenyi FCA recalls a senior male practitioner once lamenting to her that one of his female reports had opted for a career change rather than undertake a piece of work where she would have to make people redundant.
Eszenyi suggested he try using a different mindset.
“You have to reframe it as helping people,” she advised. “When you have to make those difficult decisions, and you have to execute them, you owe it to those people to do it in an appropriately empathetic way, to provide them with all of the information that you can to support them through what is a difficult process.”
She was prompted to look at the insolvency field herself after someone told her she’d be good at it.
“I wasn’t an accountant at that point; I hadn’t started my degree. [The suggestion] was that I had a bucketload of common sense.”
But an insolvency role needs more than common sense. “It is a highly specialised field that requires a lot of technical smarts, people smarts and a wide range of commercial and interpersonal skills,” Eszenyi says.
Picture: Thea Eszenyi FCA.
“It is a highly specialised field that requires a lot of technical smarts, people smarts and a wide range of commercial and interpersonal skills.”
And there is no getting around the fact that it’s difficult to accommodate family responsibilities when you have to drop everything at a moment’s notice to work 20-hour days in an emergency.
However, there are different kinds of work within the profession that can suit men and women with family care responsibilities, Eszenyi says. And it is essential to ensure that parents who opt for those roles are not “sidelined”.
Now at the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC), Eszenyi had more than 20 years’ of insolvency experience with McGrathNicol in Adelaide and EY. She loved the challenges of the role.
Practitioners may find themselves running a winery or a trucking company. They may be solving a mystery about the value of intellectual property or finding an ethical use for contaminated land. They could be tracking down a fleeing director and tracing missing funds.
“It’s about being able to learn very quickly. You have to have a very quick uptake.”
Kare Johnstone CA: Partner, McGrathNicol, Auckland
Over the past six years, the proportion of female insolvency practitioners in New Zealand has doubled to almost 20%, says Kare Johnstone CA. It’s coincided with the launch of an informal Women in Restructuring and Insolvency (WIRI) network under the auspices of the Restructuring, Insolvency & Turnaround Association New Zealand (RITANZ).
“Our focus with WIRI is really trying to broaden opportunities for women across all levels,” says Johnstone, an RITANZ board member.
She challenges the idea that women need a stay-at-home partner to succeed in the insolvency field.
“We need to show that, if you choose to have a family, you can have two working people in one household. It is challenging, but you can do it. It’s essential you do what’s important for you in your life, together with building your career, whatever gender you are.”
Johnstone and her partner, who have two small children, manage with the help of a part-time nanny.
Insolvency and restructuring is an “exceptional career path”, she says. “It is hugely satisfying when you’re able to assist the business and either turn it around or sell it as a going concern and save jobs. It’s hugely emotional, on the other hand, when we haven’t been able to do that and there are job losses.”
Picture: Kare Johnstone CA.
“It is hugely satisfying when you’re able to assist the business and either turn it around or sell it as a going concern and save jobs.”
Redundancies are a task Johnstone may have to undertake perhaps twice a year. While it is the most trying part of her job, she would rather do it well than risk someone else handling it clumsily.
“I started doing it [redundancies] quite early on in my career outside of McGrathNicol. And the reason was, I didn’t like the way I saw it being done by other colleagues. I thought more compassion was needed when dealing with what can be an extremely stressful situation for the receiving party.”
Getting an insolvency practitioner license
Insolvency practitioners in Australia must be registered with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) to accept corporate insolvency engagements, or the Australian Financial Security Authority (AFSA) to accept personal insolvency engagements (including sole traders).
Legislation about registration with ASIC and AFSA is similar, requiring appropriate tertiary qualifications in accounting or commercial law and at least 4000 hours of senior level employment (assisting a registered practitioner) in the past five years. You must be interviewed by a committee, have appropriate insurance and be a fit and proper person. You must also provide two referee reports.
There are different criteria for registration with ASIC as a liquidator only to accept company appointments to a small business restructuring or a restructuring plan. You will still be interviewed by a committee, require insurance and have to fulfil fit and proper person criteria.
You may also be registered with AFSA as a debt agreement administrator. Debt agreement administrators do not need such extensive work experience or to do an interview.
In New Zealand, you must be licensed by an accredited body, which includes the New Zealand Institute of Chartered Accountants (NZICA). CAs with a Certificate of Public Practice must show at least 1000 hours of senior insolvency engagements over the past three years and at least five years of insolvency or similar experience. Members of the Restructuring, Insolvency & Turnaround Association of New Zealand (RITANZ) can also apply to NZICA for a licence, but must show at least 2000 hours of experience over the past three years. All applicants must meet fit and proper person criteria and have insurance.
For more CA ANZ resources on insolvency and restructuring go to bit.ly/caanz-insolvency