- Chartered accountants took out four individual awards and one employer award at the 2020 Women in Finance Awards on 10 September.
- Accountant of the Year Sonia Gibson CA had set up her own practice out of frustration that she had little input at the highest level in previous jobs.
- Winners agreed that a more flexible approach to work hours would be a huge support for women working in the finance sector.
By Amity Delaney
Four chartered accountants and a CA firm have been recognised in the 2020 Women in Finance Awards, announced on 10 September 2020.
Sonia Gibson CA was named Accountant of the Year, Elle Sweeney CA won Accounting Consultant of the Year, Shannon Smit CA was awarded Regional Professional of the Year, and Naomi Kewley CA of Peak Super Audits was recognised as Auditor of the Year. Adelaide’s Truon Chartered Accountants won Employer of the Year (SME).
First launched in 2017 by Momentum Media, the publisher of Accountants Daily and other websites, the annual awards recognise Australia’s top finance industry professionals and the outstanding women who are shaping and influencing the sector.
Acuity spoke to three of the winners about their awards and what’s needed to better support women working in financial services.
Accountant of the Year
Sonia Gibson CA, Accounting Heart, Miranda, NSW
Q: You were named 2020 Accountant of the Year. What does it mean to have won?
It meant quite a bit to me to win the award. I started my firm about four years ago, after being disillusioned by being the only female in two other accounting practices. We have taken a much more heart-centred approach to our working environment. That’s something I couldn’t do in a more masculine environment.
It’s not always about the money. It really comes down to personal values and about those things that can’t be easily quantified. I think you can still be profitable and successful without money being the primary focus.
Q: How did COVID-19 affect your practice?
With the coronavirus lockdowns, initially everything sort of stopped for a period of weeks. That period was very much about understanding JobKeeper and cash-flow boost. (We do a full range of business services – the taxation, business advisory and bookkeeping side of things.)
The transition to working from home only cost A$30 because we were already cloud-based and had three team members working remotely. The back-end of the firm was fine; it was our clients that we were concerned about.
Q: How do you think roles in finance can be improved for women?
By offering more flexibility within those roles. All of my team members are part-time. They nominate the number of hours they work each week and when they start. It’s very much in their control.
They don’t have to choose between a career and a family life, and that’s really important to me. As a result, I have two wonderful chartered accountants working for me; our office administrator came from a big law firm in the city. I have awesome team members because I can offer them that flexibility.
“I have awesome team members because I can offer them that flexibility.”
Q: What’s needed to better support women in finance?
We need to encourage more women to be in senior roles. Women don’t have a seat at the board table. My male business partners at my previous jobs couldn’t really give a toss about that. It got to that point of frustration that I didn’t have a voice around that table.
I said to one of my male business partners, I want to create a business that I can run from everywhere in the world, and he said, “Good luck with that”. That was prior to me resigning.
For me, it was about creating that work environment that was modern and progressive and forward thinking. You hear about these inclusive, modern workplaces but then you go to job interviews and they just don’t exist.
Accounting Consultant of the Year
Elle Sweeney CA, Link Advisors, Fortitude Valley, Qld
Q: What is the Accounting Consultant of the Year award for?
It recognises the consultant who has exceeded expectations in their dedication and performance for clients on complex business matters.
The consulting work I focus on includes business structuring, tax planning, asset protection strategies and financial modelling. A lot of my small business clients get a huge amount of value out of it.
The best part of my job is my client relationships so it means the world to win this award and be recognised as someone who goes above and beyond for their clients.
“The best part of my job is my client relationships.”
Q: Did COVID-19 have a big effect on your work?
Besides the four months working from my spare bedroom? A lot of my clients have been negatively impacted by having to reduce their trading or close completely. It was up to all the accountants and bookkeepers of Australia to single-handedly interpret and deliver the government’s stimulus in response to COVID-19. This meant stressful late nights calculating cash-flow boost, preparing JobKeeper applications and getting all of this information out to our clients in a timely manner.
Q: What can be done to better support women in the finance sector?
There’s no better motivator than feeling appreciated in your job. I believe it’s really important for top-level management to speak out about successful women in their organisation and celebrate their achievements.
Having female role models in a business for younger women to look up to and learn from is really important especially in the early stages of your career.
I also think it’s essential to invest in programs that support women when they choose to re-enter the workforce after having children.
Q: What’s your advice for young CAs?
Be yourself. I’ve often received feedback from clients about me seeming like a “normal person” and not like a “typical accountant”. Unfortunately, we accountants get a bad rap as being boring. Be yourself; let clients know you’re human. Have a laugh and you will create great client relationships.
Regional Professional of the Year
Shannon Smit CA, SMART Business Solutions, Mornington, Vic.
Q: What does it mean to have won this award?
Having grown up on the Mornington Peninsula and lived here for most of my life, I am extremely passionate about our community and our small businesses. To me, this award was recognition for my contribution to the community, not only through my business, but also in other areas, such as being a founding member of the Committee for Mornington Peninsula (CfMP).
The CfMP provides the strategic leadership needed to ensure that all levels of government leverage the potential for our region and to ensure that it’s a safe, prosperous and progressive place to live.
Q: What sort of work do you do?
I am an accountant by trade but offer so much more than that! We become an extension of the client’s business as their go-to business adviser for all aspects of the business, not just accounting.
Q: How are you going during the pandemic?
With Victoria in Stage Four lockdown, our entire team has been working remotely. Being cloud-based it’s certainly been possible, but the nature of accounting and business advisory is so personal that we've really missed the rapport that we'd normally build with face-to-face meetings. I do miss this aspect.
“[COVID] has shown us that businesses can be more flexible than they ever thought possible.”
Q: How do you think roles in finance can be improved for women?
There may actually be a silver lining to COVID. It has shown us that businesses can be more flexible than they ever thought possible. This flexibility will certainly assist women, especially those with younger children or returning to the workforce. Many women bring a level of empathy to the numbers that the clients resonate with.
Q: Any advice for young CAs?
Plan your career. Set yourself one-, two- and five-year goals. Bring this back into action steps that will help you achieve these goals. Then, go smash them!