Date posted: 06/03/2024 5 min read

Count her in

As we approach International Women’s Day, chartered accountants share how the profession has the skills to empower women and help them reach economic parity.

Quick Take

  • The theme for International Women’s Day 2024 is Count Her In: Accelerating Gender Equality Through Economic Empowerment
  • Chartered accountants have the skills to empower women and help them reach economic parity with men
  • Setting targets and implementing technology can help in the fight for gender equality.

Twenty years ago, when Melissa Grove FCA was starting out as a graduate in a large firm in Melbourne, there were just as many female accountants as male accountants. “It was even footing,” she says. As their careers progressed and opportunities arose in more senior roles however, women began to drop off the ladder. Men dominated management roles, and the majority of those in leadership and executive positions were male.

Once women start having children, the difference in the way they want to work becomes apparent, says Grove. “You see the numbers start to change. Everyone had to battle, whether it was for maternity leave, or part-time work. There were people in leadership positions saying you can’t do that role part time, or can’t take time off. Or, ‘You can’t have part-time work as someone needs it more than you’. Careers stagnated,” she says, adding “the disparity really starts to grow until you’re one of the only women around the table.”

Towards gender equality

While important progress has been made, global organisation UN Women states women face significant obstacles to achieving equal participation in the economy, through unequal access to education, employment pathways, financial services and literacy.

It states economic empowerment is central to a gender-equal world and is calling on organisations to demonstrate their commitment to women on International Women’s Day on 8 March.

International Women’s Day theme for 2024 is Count Her In: Accelerating Gender Equality Through Economic Empowerment, which will examine the pathways to greater economic inclusion for women and girls around the world. It’s a day for businesses to celebrate employees, clients, customers and stakeholders who have championed gender equality and diversity.

It’s a theme Grove is more than happy to support. “Global female economic empowerment is one of my biggest passions. I really believe that if you help one woman, you help the entire community that surrounds her,” she says.Now running her own consultancy, Rhine Consulting in Perth, and preparing to launch Sustainable Edge Accounting and Advisory with another CA, Grove believes strongly in firms setting gender targets for leadership positions.

“You need targets to get the momentum going,” she says, adding how encouraging it was to see Cindy Hook promoted to chief executive officer of Deloitte Asia Pacific after Grove’s time at Deloitte.

“You saw women in leadership – they were very visible,” she says.

“Global female economic empowerment is one of my biggest passions. I really believe that if you help one woman, you help the entire community that surrounds her.”
Melissa Grove FCA, Rhine Consulting

Tools to empower women

The Workplace Gender Equality Agency describes targets as specific, measurable objectives, generally set by an organisation at their own discretion, with discrete time frames in which they are to be achieved. In the accounting profession, big four firms Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PwC have publicly set targets aimed at increasing gender diversity at the partnership level.

But Felicity Hill CA, a director at Frank Accounting in Auckland, believes firms still have a long way to go. “As a profession I don’t think we have yet nailed women’s economic empowerment,” she says.

“Throughout my career, but particularly after having children, I had decisions made for me, including how many hours I should be working and what opportunities I should be pursuing. Women are smart and more than capable in making decisions which work for them,” Hill says.

The key to having more women in senior positions in the accounting industry, Hill believes, is flexibility – and not just in terms of working from home.

“What I mean by that is we need flexibility in our thinking around how the workplace and work week look. We are stuck with a mindset which hasn’t really changed for the last 100 years, despite advancements in technology and productivity.”

Hill founded her own firm but has since left to join Frank Accounting, which has in the past year implemented a four-day work week, enabling staff to work an 80% week for 100% pay.

“We’ve been able to do that because we’re output-focused,” she says. “We have all the data we need at our fingertips to make sure we’re achieving the output.

“We need to attract people to the profession. To be honest, we don’t use it as a recruitment tool at all, but what it does mean is we hold on to really good people.”

Hill is quick to add that balancing a career and a family still remains tough for many women. “We’ve still got a huge amount of work to do, to not make it so hard,” she says. “We talk about work-life balance, wellness and being flexible, but often that disappears when the pressure comes on. We have made some steps to improving economic parity but we need a lot more work to drive authentic change.

“I think a lot of the difficulty we have in reaching economic empowerment for women is that we are trying to tick boxes, rather than create real change,” she adds. “Many firms try to put in place formal workplace policies, but it is the informal support and genuine cultural changes that really make a difference. The informal policies which allow women to speak up with ideas or concerns – and give them autonomy – are often more effective.”

Initiatives for women, by women

The majority of staff at Wallace Diack Chartered Accountants in Marlborough, New Zealand are mothers of primary school children, and work 9am till 3pm. Director Karen Draper CA says many start off in admin roles, before being trained as accountants.

“You can always find admin staff but it’s really hard to find trained accountants: it’s our recruitment plan,” she says. “That should, in turn, mean they get paid a higher wage because they’re doing high-level work. That’s the aim of the game. There’s work there whenever they want it and with all these cloud solutions, they can work anywhere.”

Draper speaks highly of the AI Women’s Circle, a WhatsApp group with chartered accountant members in Australia and New Zealand that enables women to share stories about technology and artificial intelligence, and how they’re using it.

“You’ve got to keep up with what’s new, otherwise you are going to get left behind with your cash book. Human error is just not worth it,” she says. One thing she shared with the WhatsApp group was the creation of Wallace Diack’s robot, which also took the main stage at Xerocon this year. ‘Frankie the Robot’ has taken on many of the mundane tasks an accountant does dayto- day – copying and pasting, taking information from one source to another, for example – and in doing so created huge efficiencies for the business. Wallace Diack has started selling Frankie around New Zealand and is looking to Australia and the UK in the near future.

“We’ve got a lot of senior accountants here and Frankie has effectively made our senior accountants more reviewers than doers. It works with Xero, FYI, SuiteFiles, Xero Workpapers and CCH Workpapers.”

Empowering women and girls

For International Women’s Day, business leaders are encouraged to examine the pathways to greater economic inclusion for women and girls. According to the United Nations, gender equality, besides being a fundamental human right, is essential to achieve peaceful societies, with full human potential and sustainable development. Moreover, it has been shown that empowering women spurs productivity and economic growth.

Grove encourages men to go to networking events to network with women and support them. She says many men have given her a leg-up in her career. “They have sponsored me to roles and have spoken up for me and said, ‘Mel needs to be in that role’ or had very direct, raw conversations with me about whether I wanted a role and what I had to do to get it.

“How are you going to change the dynamic of top listed companies and have that filter down to private companies? How are you going to have diversity of voice and diversity of opinion unless you actually say it’s a must?”

Grove recently participated in CA ANZ’s CA in Residence Program, where she mentored a young woman in high school, Meena Srinivasan, who has founded a sustainability movement called Mini Steps. Grove has helped Srinivasan grow her business through supporting her with business development and growth questions, communications and growing her network.

“The value is not only in our profession and our training, but in building trusted, authentic connections and relationships. It’s all about authentic connection; how do you help someone on their journey?” says Grove.

“As women, we have to transform, embrace, use the technology ourselves and be aware of what we’re engaging with, so we can teach and empower other women.”

Elevate your impact

This year, the annual Women in Business Conference is changing to an online two-day program and optional masterclass, which will cover a wide range of topics that focus on personal growth, effectiveness, business acumen and data technology proficiency.

Venue: Online
Date: 13–14 March 2024

Resources to support a more gender equal future

In the lead up to International Women’s Day (IWD) on 8 March, explore our practical resources to support a more gender equal future for our profession.

Find out more