More women than men are entering the accounting profession ÔÇô yet they are still outnumbered by their male counterparts in senior positions.
Now, industry leaders are calling for sponsorship and a change in corporate policy to break the glass ceiling and reap the benefits of continued growth in diversity. And though the accounting profession is less skewed than many other fields, they say action is needed to bring about change.
In Botswana, the Botswana Institute of Chartered Accountants (BICA) says there is still an overall shortage of highly skilled accounting professionals. However, the numbers are growing ÔÇô and women are increasingly strongly represented, with institutions like the Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT) boasting a membership of 70% women and qualifying some 4,000 students a year.
The South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA) meanwhile reports a marked increase in the number of female chartered accountants (over 50%) over the past five years, while the number of women in management positions overall flatlined. According to the Africa Human Development Report 2016 less than 30% of all private firms in Africa have a female manager.
This is a global issue. Canadian economist Ramona Dzinkowski writes in Accounting & Business magazine that around the world senior positions continue to be male-dominated ÔÇô especially in the accountancy field. In the US and UK, accountancy firms are still heavily weighted towards male principals, she says. And a recent International Labour Organisation (ILO) report, found that women are “still being shut out of higher level economic decision-making”, despite small increases in the number of women in management over the past two decades and despite growing evidence that diversity at the top is critical for business success.
How to crack the glass ceiling
Both accounting professionals and industry bodies say change must happen at two levels: within companies and starting with education.
Nilima Bhagi (Sharma), a Chartered Accountant and a Senior Associate in the tax division at PwC Botswana, says that it is possible for more women to progress into more senior roles ÔÇô as she has done ÔÇô but that they need more support and better defined opportunities to do so. And it starts before they even enter the workforce, she argues.
It’s essential for educational institutions to create opportunities for women to complete their studies, taking into account that they may have gender-specific challenges. “In Botswana, there has been a significant increase in women who have joined professional accounting bodies in the last few years, but there are quite a number of women who have not been able to complete their studies either due to financial problems or other personal or family problems,” she says.
Bhagi, who recently completed her MSc in Strategic Business Management in the UK, began her career by studying for AAT’s Accounting Qualifications in Botswana, completing the course in 16 months. Because the course is offered online, it is possible to fit it in around daily challenges. Bhagi was also able to complete additional qualifications while already working in the finance industry which helped her to finance her career ÔÇô but not everyone is that lucky especially if they come from an economically deprived background.
Analyst Lynn Grala, writing for the Journal of The Global Accounting Alliance, argues that learner support must begin at school level. Disadvantaged learners, she says, may need academic support in maths skills, but also “face a number of additional challenges: not only do they require financial support, but also additional mentorship in the form of academic and ‘soft’ skills support to ensure their success”.
Progressive company policy, such as flexible working arrangements, may also help according to Grala, as many women still shoulder demanding domestic responsibilities.
At an organisational level, Dzinkowski says sponsorship is a possible solution “to moving women up both the executive and pay ranks” once they have qualified. “Sponsorship implies greater accountability… because the individual sponsor puts their own reputation on the line to champion a particular candidate for a particular opportunity.” she argues.
Bhagi believes a core challenge for corporates is to create opportunities for women to advance ÔÇô as the abilities are certainly there. “I believe that it is easy for women to advance in their careers as they have strong determination. The challenge is whether these opportunities are made available to them,” she says. “More opportunities must be given to women to prove their capabilities.” Bhagi began her career handling accounts for a local car dealership. Having proved herself, she moved to a larger company, then to a major retail brand, and finally to PwC.
Diverse organisations help build strong economies
The need to diversify is often talked about as a political and social imperative, but it also offers significant economic advantages. Last year, the Financial Times reported that a large study of more than 21,000 public companies in 91 countries by the Peterson Institute and EY, found that bringing more women into higher management boosted profitability.
“Women are becoming more aware and independent and are ready to take up challenging jobs. There are also efforts being made to increase awareness around gender diversification and gender equality in the workplace,” says Bhagi.
For a developing country, gender diversity could play a role in helping economies leapfrog to new competitiveness. And in Botswana, the country is already well on the way, argues Nicky Fisher, President of AAT. AAT is already seeing a steady increase in the number of female enrolments and with more conscious interventions these could be increased further.
“There is no reason that more women like Nilima Bhagi should not be able to gain their qualifications and go on to make a greater impact on the economy of their country,” she said.
“I do believe that there are many opportunities for women especially in the finance sector in Botswana,” agrees Bhagi. “As it is a developing country, there is huge potential for the finance sector to grow and for women to be a part of that.”