Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
The serious work behind Women of ICAS dispels any illusion that a savvier, younger generation of women is making it in the macho world of the Big 4 firms and wider profession, as predicted in the 1990s. The accountancy profession, it seems, is regressing and not progressing on the equity agenda. The book is a persuasive account of why women are still not making it through the ranks to partnership precisely because it is based on excellent and substantive scholarship.
Don't let the academic format put you off reading it. The key message of the book is perhaps not fully captured in the title and might come as a nasty surprise.
Whether you look at it from a straightforward fairness perspective, from a self‐interested employee perspective or from an employer business‐case perspective to do with rewarding and retaining talented women, this situation is pretty shocking.
Early‐ and mid‐career‐stage women readers will recognise this book as required reading about the experiences and life‐choices they will need to negotiate, should they decide to try to make it to the partnership table. Professor Gammie and her colleagues' commentary on women's self‐perceptions is a useful guide to evaluating one's own sense of ambition and what might be required. If you are a female accountant, this book's message about long hours may well resonate; so how about making an intention to spend an hour with this book rather than (say) a women's magazine this month? Because the work is qualitative and interview‐based, as well as quantitative and demographic, the book is hugely thought‐provoking in places. Insights into the working lives of women partners are fascinating, as are male and female partners' self‐perceptions and perceptions of each other. Professor Gammie and colleagues also target an audience whose influence will be critical if women's prospects for advancement in the accounting profession are ever likely to be realised – although, given the findings of the book, I surmise that this audience is likely to be very small. This audience will be made up of senior partners (men and women) who have, or are prepared to assume, responsibility for equity in their firms, and their HR advisors.
I particularly liked the book's focus on specific things that need to happen to change the work environment, given the complex, dynamic but subtle nature of the glass ceiling. The evidence points towards partners and HR professionals working to reach a common understanding, for example, of how and why flexible working matters. Depressingly, it seems that possible policies for addressing how much time employees work, such as job‐sharing and term‐time working, are barely on the firms' radar, for example.
Women of ICAS makes some specific recommendations to women partners who are encouraged to act as role models for women coming through the ranks. This puts the onus particularly on an “older” generation of women (who qualified between 1975 and 1980), 47 per cent of whom have made partner and who are doing better than the 22.7 per cent of “younger” women (35‐39) who have made partner. It also puts a burden on the women who have got through to partnership in the Big 4. In Scotland, only 13.7 per cent of females in the Big 4 environment have reached partnership. And Professor Gammie and colleagues particularly target women partners who have managed to achieve an acceptable work‐life balance. All the evidence in Gammie et al.'s report, however, suggests that such a balance is tricky, to say the least. Working part‐time, for instance, isn't likely to improve your chances of being made partner.
The primary concern of the book is with the wanting state of women's progress through the profession and women's professional development. Women, for example, stress the virtues of hard work, loyalty and dedication. But in the prevailing macho culture, it seems, the “male” attributes of drive and ambition are required to win in the partnership stakes.
But these and other findings should also provoke some underlying and fundamental questions about working life in the profession. In future, do we want a profession that values the masculine attributes of drive and ambition above other (feminine) attributes? Must women who want to get to the top really behave like men? Are those women who decide not to put themselves forward for promotion the ones who really understand what success and self‐actualisation feel like? Why is the “long hours culture” the norm? What are men and women who subscribe to such a culture doing to themselves and their families? Should young women and men starting out be led to think that making it to partner level in a Big 4 firm is the be all and end all of a career? These are some of the questions that came to my mind, provoked by the excellent work of Professor Gammie and her colleagues.
This window on the Scottish experience is a useful source of knowledge about the state of women's development and progress through the profession; it is devoid of ranting and blame and full of lessons and practical recommendations. Reading about women's progress in Scotland should provide a comfortable degree of separation from which to reflect on the experience of persistent gender inequalities of opportunity in the profession.
I would encourage the influential readership to make use of this sense of a buffer, and use it to consider whether and why young women are failing to progress in their firms. The influence of Professor Gammie and her colleagues' work should be such that it is not a question of whether, but when the focus will shift to barriers to women's progression in the New Zealand profession.