Women Partners In The UK – What Women Partners?

There have been more than a few articles about this study in the UK. But I like giving the Scots more press.

It seems that the proportion of women partners at all the firms in the UK plummeted this year.

View through the glass ceiling presents unbalanced picture

“It’s a scenario that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. An aspiring director of “Big Four” accountancy firm Deloitte was allowed to bring both her mother and young baby along to the “assessment centre” while on maternity leave. Throughout the two-day session, designed to assess whether she was a suitable person to have as a director, the candidate’s mother was able to look after junior.

Even in the mid-1990s such an aspiring director or partner would have had to await their return from maternity leave before being able to subject themselves to the gruelling assessment process – meaning their chances of promotion could have been lessened.

But Isobel Sharp, president of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Scotland, and a partner at Deloitte, welcomes such initiatives. Indeed, she says that without this sort of flexible thinking about the differing needs of women, accountancy firms will struggle to redress the gender imbalance that appears to be worsening in their profession.

Sharp says: “We have to get across the message that having children is not in any way a disadvantage.” She cites recent research from Professor Elizabeth Gammie of Aberdeen Business School at Robert Gordon University. Conducted on behalf of ICAS, this research concluded there is still a “glass ceiling” in the accountancy profession, with women accounting for just 13% of ICAS partners in practice.

This means accountancy is severely lagging the law in the gender equality stakes. According to the Law Society of Scotland, 21.8% of the 3632 partners in private practice in Scottish law firms are women. Sharp said in an ideal world, the proportion of partners in Big Four accountancy firms who are female should rise to 50% – reflecting society at large. However, they are a long way from reaching this goal, which Sharp says is a situation that none of the Big Four are happy about. “They would all love to see more female partners come through,” said Sharp.

Currently just 10% of partners in Big Four accountancy firms in the UK are female, even though roughly half (48%) of those entering the profession are women.

At Deloitte just two (7%) of the 28 partners in Scotland are female. The figure for PriceWaterhouseCoopers is seven (18%) out of 39, while only two (9%) of Ernst & Young’s 22 partners in Scotland are female. And 15% of KPMG’s 40 people at “partner equivalent level” in Scotland are female. This compares to eight (13%) of Deloitte’s 61 partners and directors in Scotland who are women.

‘one problem is that women tend to start families at around the time they’re thinking of partnership’

Large independent firms seem to be even more male-dominated. At Johnston Carmichael, Scotland’s largest independent accountancy firm, just 5% of the 37 partners are women. Most of the Big Four firms admit to being unhappy with the current gender imbalances and have set themselves targets of increasing the proportion of partners who are female to between 25% and 31% within the next couple years. However, if current trends continue, these targets are going to be elusive.

In fact, the latest figures suggest the upper echelon of the accountancy profession is in danger of becoming even more of a male preserve. Accountancy magazine last week revealed that, despite efforts to attract and retain women in senior roles, only 14% of people who were made partners in the Big Four firms in 2007 were women, down from 21% last year.

The magazine revealed the proportion of the new partners at Ernst & Young who are female collapsed from 28% last year to 12% in 2007, while that at PwC dropped from 21% to 13%. Deloitte held firm at 16% in each of the years, while KPMG’s female intake dipped from 17% to 16%.

Chris Quick, Accountancy’s editor-in-chief, said: “One of the major problems is that women tend to start families at around the same time they’re thinking of partnership. If firms want women at the top, they’ll have to show them it’s possible to combine the two.”

I’m sorry, but it’s not having babies that’s the problem, it’s trying to spend any time with them that gets in the way of being a partner. That’s a gender neutral challenge.

One of the worst excuses was given by a woman at PwC in Jennifer Hughes’ Accountancy column in FT:

“When we saw what was coming through, I won’t deny we thought ‘crikey’ but we took a really good look and, genuinely, it’s one of those blips,” said Moira Elms, a PWC board member. “We have a lot of women who weren’t quite ready and it’s our view that they want to get there on merit alone, not because they are female.”

Crikey my ass…What an insult to the women who are teed up for this promotion. What reasonable professional woman wants a promo based on sex (either being it or doing it…) But who’s at fault, given the myriad of PR and programs around making these things happen, when women or any other underrepresented group is not ready?

As for the real answer to why the numbers are lower, look for my comments here.