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NZ study on Workplace Flexibility in the Accounting Sector finds partnership and having children are mutually exclusive

A new study into the flexibility practices of the accounting sector has been undertaken to determine why this profession – in which women have long dominated at the graduate level – is still failing to attain significant female representation at partnership ranks. The study was undertaken by the New Zealand Ministry for Women and reviewed workplace practices of twelve public practice accounting firms using some form of flexibility, ranging in size from four staff to 900.

Key findings included – which now identified, can begin to be mitigated – include:

  • The majority of accountancy staff from graduates to senior managers are women, while the majority of partners and associates are men, with many qualified and experienced women ‘disappearing’ long before making the step up to partnership.
  • There does not appear to be widespread concern or planning for the demographic and skills challenges the sector faces.
  • Flexibility is often focused only on the ‘Mummy track’ i.e. letting women work part-time while caring for children – although younger generations are also requesting more flexibility
  • Working long hours is the norm in the sector and regarded as fundamental to career progression and to business profitability, and necessary for to meet client demands – however two firms operating flexible work practices have succeeded in educating clients to accept a different way of working.
  • There was some evidence that long hours are not productive, and that the advent of technology enabling staff to work anywhere and anytime can make the long hours culture worse.
  • There is an assumption that ‘doing things differently’, including adopting flexible work practices, will have a negative impact on profitability. Yet firms that do adopt flexible work practices as core to their working structure experience bottom line benefits. For example, BDO Taranaki ranked in the top ten in the Waikato inter-firm survey and the highest outside the main centres.
  • Leadership of the firm appears to play a key part in the way flexibility is perceived.
  • Many reasons are given for not adopting flexible work practices or for flexible work practices ‘failing’, including: missing skills and expertise when a person is out of the office; client demand for immediate response and 24/7 availability; confidentiality considerations mitigating against working from home; whether staff could be trusted not to abuse the privilege; staff working shorter hours missing out on more challenging work.

The study found that a significant barrier to achieving flexibility is the very nature of worker attracted to the profession: “accountancy, particularly in the ‘Big Four’ firms, tends to attract a certain personality type, described variously as ‘A Type’, ‘driven’, ‘ambitious’, and ‘Alpha male’. Characteristics of this ‘type’ included being competitive, driven by money, and enjoying long hours in the office followed by long hours ‘networking’ over drinks and at sporting fixtures”.

Having previously written about my view that we need to tackle the ingrained perception that more long hours are the key to career advancement, I was pleased to see this study highlighting that “there was some evidence that long hours or revenue generation do not result in better work, or in greater productivity.” Indeed one firm that capped the number of hours staff could work at 45 per week found staff were more productive after the cap was put in place; that there were fewer mistakes, and less need to rework.

A critical finding of the study is that both men and women across a range of firms were of the view that caring for children and being a partner were mutually exclusive, due to the demands of both these jobs.  The trade-off seems to have been accepted as a given across the sector, despite the productivity issues of long days and even though few of the younger people interviewed wanted to be partners because of the long hours and the nature of the commitment required, which, said one, ‘was bigger than marriage’.

From the perspective of the firms, it seems we have a long way to go, with the notion of part-time partners generally discounted with the argument that its not feasible to share the profits according to the work brought in so that some partners could take a reduced income in return for reduced hours.

Having worked in a top tier accounting firm in a prior life, it intrigues me that these firms – which are absolute knowledge banks of best practice from every industry and appropriately coveted for the leading edge financial and consulting advice they offer – can’t seem to find a way around their own entrenched systems and practices to satisfy the changing demographics of our workforce. 

The irony wasn’t lost on me…

I know that many of you are working in firms and could shed some light on best practices that are helping with the retention and development of talented women.  You know who you are – and it would be great if you can share your good news stories here…

And click here to access the full report.

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