The time is now
Gender inequality in accounting is at unacceptable levels, and in the absence of government policy, it’s time for change at the grassroots.
There is simply no denying — or excusing — the significant and palpable impact that gender has on the course of a professional’s career in the developed world.
Arguments to the contrary contradict conclusive and reputable Australian and international studies, decades of anecdotal evidence, and statistics which point loud and clear to an unacceptable and virtually across the-board gender pay gap.
This is not new information. But it’s essential to ingest and accept for two reasons.
First, understanding the pervasiveness of gender inequality in professional services, accounting included, gives weight to the urgency to create change.
Second, whether consciously or not, there’s a notable chunk of the industry, consistent with the Australian business community in general, who do not think gender inequality exists. Women and men alike argue their female counterparts were not held back because of their gender. Those women who weren’t impacted in any way are the exception to a nationwide rule.
The industry can’t fight for what it doesn’t know, believe in, or understand. Let’s remove any reasonable doubt that this is a cause in need of some soldiers.
Tax office data taken from the 2013-14 financial year, which we have chosen to use because it’s complete and conclusive compared to more recent years, conclusively shows the existence of a major gender pay gap. Data from more recent years follows similar patterns so far.
The ATO breaks accounting professionals into various categories, and virtually across the board, there are significant gaps in pay between men and women.
For male tax accountants, the average taxable income was $75,854 in FY13/14. For females in an equivalent position, it was $61,239.
With tax agents or consultants, the average taxable income for a woman was $52,006. For a man, it was $79,982.
Women classified as an accountant and chartered accountant had an average taxable income of $71,552. Men in the same category had an average taxable income of $105,107.
For external auditors, the average female taxable income was recorded at $61,222. For a man, it was $71,595. Female internal auditors averaged a taxable income of $79,833, while male internal auditors enjoyed a $98,558 average.
Bookkeeping is the exception to this rule, with women earning a few thousand more than men annually. It is worth noting that the Tax Practitioners Board says almost 80 per cent of bookkeepers are women. This is in no small part due to its inherent flexibility as an occupation.
Overall the patterns are clear, pervasive, and undeniable.
Recruiters on the frontline have experiences which echo the ATO’s data, and point to deep rooted industry expectations and assumptions.
For example, earlier this year, accounting recruitment firm Richard Lloyd released the results of a survey of 2,000 accountants based in a market hotspot — Sydney.
The data showed that in mid-level management roles, women are paid approximately 13 per cent less than their male peers. At more senior levels, where only 27 per cent of respondents were women, the gap is 14 per cent.
Salaries were comparable at the support services level, however only 33 per cent of respondents were men.
“Even when comparing like-for like men and women, with the same qualifications, tenure and work hours the salary gap between the two remained. There is no apparent reason for this gap, it is most likely a case of unconscious bias in action,” said the recruitment firm’s director Geoff Balmer.
This bias exists outside of metropolitan areas as well. As an example, a 2016 study by University of New England (UNE) also indicated female practitioners, particularly within regional accounting firms, still feel overwhelming levels of inequality in the workplace when it comes to pay and promotions.
The report found that while women make up half of the qualified practising accountants in Australia, these numbers are not translating to senior positions such as principals, directors, and partners.
“Gender inequality continues to be reinforced and reproduced by male principals and partners through day-to-day work and social practices,” said Dr Sujana Adapa of UNE.
“These women felt they couldn’t see themselves progressing into senior roles.”
The big picture
Professional services is one symptom and indicator of a global problem in developing countries, largely due to deeply entrenched cultural attitudes towards the role of women in society.
Earlier this year, PwC measured the level of female empowerment across 33 OECD countries, based on a combination of indicators which reflect participation in the labour market and equality in the workplace.
Overall, Australia was ranked middle of the pack in 16th place, one place lower than the previous report in 2016. At the top of the list were the Nordic countries, particularly Iceland, Sweden and Norway.
In good news, participation of Australian women in the workforce is above the OECD average. Also, female unemployment is better than most OECD countries. It’s important to note, however, that a higher proportion of women in Australia are working part-time.
Australia has the third-lowest rate of female full-time employment, in part due to a lack of access to affordable childcare, and in part due to strong gendered norms of work and care — that is, the cultural expectation of the woman to take on family duties.
Further, while the difference in salary between Australian women and men is under the OECD average by about 1 per cent, standing at 15.4 per cent, at this rate of progress it will take 40 years to close the gender pay gap.
“The gender pay gap is often driven by entrenched, subconscious attitudes and the outcomes those create,” PwC said in its report.
“One example is that traditionally female-dominated roles such as nursing and caring, creative and design roles, and customer-focused roles are valued, and therefore paid, less than traditionally male-dominated roles such as medical diagnosis, legal, and accounting roles.”
What’s the answer?
There is progress on the legislative front, in that high priority issues such as childcare are on the national agenda, but policy at a government level to support an equal and inclusive workplace remains woefully inadequate.
In absence of policy and structure, there are moves businesses can make to address gender inequality, which has a bottom line benefit. Once you create a workplace which allows a family unit to function without women needing to substantially sacrifice their working hours or career progression, you are giant leaps ahead in achieving the holy grail of productivity — staff retention.
Something that is particularly achievable for small businesses is rethinking the structure of a working day. Specifically, moving away from billable hours to an outcomes-based system, and not requiring staff to always be at a centralised office during business hours.
Jenny Brown, who is the founder and chief executive of financial planning firm JBS Financial Strategists, finds that providing flexible arrangements for staff is key to breeding loyalty. Allowing staff to work in an environment where both their work and personal life aren’t overwhelming them, and where one isn’t working to the significant detriment of the other, is also crucial to productivity.
Take an example of a parent that needs to pick up their child from school. If that’s not permitted due to a mandated number of office hours, that parent, at pick-up time, will likely be dedicating some brain space to wondering if their child is safe. “
Our practice manager, when she came on board with us, part of the condition was two days she would work from home because she’s got school-aged kids. At that stage they were kinder school, and she travels an hour each way,” Ms Brown said.
“For her to be able to work from home, duck out, pick up the kids, bring them back, they look after themselves while she does the work, it means that one: we retain her, we’ve got good quality, and two: she’s really happy, and she gets a really good work/life balance.”
Big four firms and mid-tiers are making moves to have more inclusive, female-friendly workplaces which encourage equal opportunities for progression and salary. The standard party line is that those firms are doing it in the name of equality — and to an extent, that is true.
The fact is though, firms like these with a decided focus on their bottom lines would not be pouring significant resources into supporting women in the workplace if there wasn’t a commercial incentive.
Having a diverse, inclusive and equal opportunity workplace is a smart business position. For that reason alone, it’s worth assessing your strategies, your structure, and your understanding of equality.