- Informal practices, more than formal policies, are key to developing wellbeing and resilience for women accountants.
- Leadership roles should be available to women who are working part-time.
- A culture of overwork needs to be replaced with one that nurtures wellbeing.
Accounting firms have made strides towards better supporting women in the profession, with initiatives such as flexible working hours, mentoring and leadership training. So why are we still not seeing enough women in senior accounting roles. And why are women accountants leaving their jobs?
Women represent a large fraction of most Western accounting professional bodies. Within CA ANZ, for example, 43% of all members identify as women. (Among Provisional CA ANZ members, women are in the majority, at 52%.)
But if you look at who’s filling senior positions in accounting firms there is a massive gap. The 2020 Australian Financial Review Top 100 Accounting Firms list revealed that women make up less than one-quarter of the partners at Australia’s biggest accounting firms (1192 women out of 5163 partners).
What’s behind this gender gap? As experienced researchers in accounting, it’s a question that plagues us. To find some answers, and possible solutions, we ran an in-depth, two-year study that involved surveys, interviews and written reflections from more than 250 qualified women accountants in Australia. Here we lay out some of our key findings with the hope that this research can start a change in the profession.
The role of informal supports
What we found initially surprised us. We learned that formal workplace supports such as flexible working arrangements, carer’s and maternity leave, mentoring, network groups and coaching have a limited effect on wellbeing and resilience for women accountants.
It’s informal practices such as support from leadership, feeling psychologically safe, having autonomy and the general workplace culture that are more influential in women accountants developing a sense of wellbeing and resilience.
Big Four vs non-Big Four
Looking at different accounting firms, we noticed that Big Four firms were more likely than others to have formal supporting practices in the workplace. However, women accountants at Big Four firms reported statistically significant poorer wellbeing and resilience than women at non-Big Four accounting firms (Graph 3).
This is important, as statistical modelling reveals that more wellbeing and resilience leads to more workplace engagement and less burnout.
While the approach at the Big Four has been to develop more policies and procedures to support women staff, women themselves are telling us that this is not enough and that firms need to focus on the “harder” task of improving their culture and other informal supports.
“The reasons for leaving mostly concerned toxic cultures and mental health stigma in accounting firms.”
Why women accountants are leaving
Are women leaving the accounting profession for better salaries? Frankly, no. Salaries were not brought up by any of the women we interviewed. Instead they told us the reasons for leaving mostly concerned toxic cultures and mental health stigma in accounting firms.
Cultural issues, such as the persistence of long working hours, under resourcing of audit engagements, poor work-life balance and inconsistencies between workplace narratives (for example, promoting good mental health) and day-to-day reality were at the forefront of reasons for leaving.
They told us there was a wide acceptance and normalisation of burnout. That had significant consequences for women’s professional and personal lives and was time consuming and extremely difficult to recover from. These issues were noted particularly in Big Four firms.
Although workplaces promote the importance of good mental health, our participants said there was still a stigma about mental health issues. Most of the women we interviewed said they would not disclose mental health issues to their direct manager; one indicated that it would be damaging to their personal brand in the workplace.
As a consequence, many women suffer in silence while trying to manage their mental health among work-related pressures.
How the pandemic made it tougher
The pandemic has added more complexity. Women have found themselves having to manage remote learning as well as remote working during a time of profound changes.
Women accountants have seen themselves revert to stereotyped gender roles at work and home. They have become responsible for the emotional labour in their workplaces, such as being the person responsible to check in on everyone and to monitor and help improve employee engagement. At home, women are often the ones responsible for supervising kids doing remote schooling as well as managing domestic duties.
Instead of providing more support to staff during this time, many accounting and professional services firms initiated actions that increased work pressures and decreased job security for women in addition to wage cuts to salaries.
How can firms fix this?
So, what can workplaces do to better support women accountants? What do women want?
There is no easy way around these issues and no HR policies, practices or procedures are going to address them effectively. What needs to be done requires real work and authenticity from accounting firms.
Key changes for informal supports include improved autonomy for women in the workplace, creating environments with strong psychological safety, providing better leadership support and improving the culture. In particular, women want to see a genuine alignment between wellbeing and work-life balance.
This needs to include real reductions in workloads and stopping the practice of under-resourcing audit engagements. It also requires realistic modelling of wellbeing and work-life balance from senior managers and partners.
Burnout needs to stop being celebrated and accepted as a part of the culture of firms and be replaced with initiatives to avoid burnout and nurture wellbeing.
Many workplaces are also losing women because they do not provide leadership roles to women who want to work part-time. This is often a catalyst for women to move to smaller, more flexible and supportive firms.
Graph 2: Relative adoption of formal and informal practices in Big Four and non-Big Four
Graph 3: Wellbeing and resilience of women accountants in Big Four and non-Big Four
Wellbeing as measured by responses to the Mental Health Continuum Short-Form (MHC-SF). Resilience as measured by responses to the Connor-Davidson Resilience Scale (CD-RISC-10). Source: Carly Moulang CA, Alessandro Ghio.
Dr Carly Moulang CA is an associate professor in accounting at Monash University. She holds a PhD in management accounting and a graduate diploma in psychology from Monash University.
Dr Alessandro Ghio is an assistant professor in accounting at Laval University, Canada. He holds a PhD in financial accounting from ESSEC Business School and a PhD in management from the University of Pisa.