COVID-19 set women in the workplace back. A lot.
Pre-pandemic, McKinsey research revealed that women in senior VP positions increased from 23% to 28% between January 2015 and December 2019. In C-suite roles, the numbers rose from 17% to 21%.
But the pandemic had a near-immediate impact on this progress, with a quarter of women considering leaving the workforce altogether or taking a step back from their careers as a result.
According to McKinsey, three groups experienced the most significant challenges due to the pandemic: working mothers, black women, and women in senior management positions. Couple this with the gender imbalances across many industries, including finance and accounting, and it’s safe to say that women in business have a few mountains to climb to reach success.
But there are women overcoming the odds. Female entrepreneurs like Judy Diederick, Sam Nkabinde, and Tiziana Marsh are proof of what can be achieved when you aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo.
To celebrate International Women’s Month in March and to showcase the 2022 theme #BreakTheBias, we chatted to Judy, Sam, and Tiziana about their experiences as women in accounting.
Here, they share three ways they are breaking the bias in their industry.
Take stereotypes on the chin
Tiziana has been running her accounting business for more than a decade. But when her husband, who also works in accounting, started his own venture, she found that her clients were copying him in on emails as if he were the boss of her business.
“There have even been cases where I haven’t gotten to an email immediately, and the client will then send a follow-up mail and copy my husband as if they are escalating the issue to a more senior party,” she notes. “It’s actually quite funny, and it’s become a bit of a running joke with some clients. But it shows that people still struggle to wrap their heads around the idea that a woman can be an entrepreneur on her own, without a man’s backing or support.”
For Judy, different factors affect how little a client values your services. Despite being in the industry for many years, as a woman of colour working for herself from a home office, she has often had to go the extra mile to prove her value.
Sam has had similar experiences as a young black female. She admits that her gender-neutral name means that clients sometimes assume she is a man, and they’re taken aback when they find out she’s not. Similarly, her age can cause clients to worry that she isn’t adequately qualified to handle their finances.
“I’m younger than people expect me to be, so they often assume that I must be a junior and I must be working for someone. They can’t believe I’m running my own business. I think there is a perception that women can’t start businesses on their own or that they can’t be in senior roles. This is something you have to challenge every day.”
Accept your strengths and weaknesses
Men are often more vocal and confident about putting themselves out there, says Sam of her experiences in the finance field. This can sometimes push women to act “more like a man” to get ahead. But because people typically associate assertiveness with men, when a woman is assertive, she is seen as moody or irrational.
“Women should be able to stand up for themselves without that behaviour being perceived negatively.”
Tiziana, Judy, and Sam agree that knowing what you’re good at and knowing your worth is incredibly important, particularly when it comes to your pricing.
“In some cases, this might mean sending a client elsewhere because they aren’t willing to accept your pricing. It has taken me years to get this right, and I still struggle to navigate these conversations with some clients,” stresses Tiziana.
She admits that a man might sometimes be better suited for the job, but this has more to do with competency than it does with gender.
She says both men and women need to acknowledge and understand their strengths and weaknesses. “If you were a doctor and had a patient with a complex condition that you couldn’t explain, you’d be willing to refer them to a specialist. We need to be okay with doing the same thing.”
Work hard, but know your boundaries
As working moms, Judy and Tiziana acknowledge that finding the balance between work and family can be difficult. When they both started their businesses, they planned to spend more time with their children, but that didn’t happen – although this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, says Tiziana.
“My son grew up seeing how hard I worked and what it takes to run a business, and I think he learned some great lessons watching me balance my home and work responsibilities.” In saying this, she does acknowledge that it’s critical to establish boundaries and stick to them.
“When you run a small business, you will often develop close relationships with your clients, making it difficult to establish clear boundaries. It’s important to ensure that your clients know what you are and are not willing to do,” says Tiziana. “People will phone me outside of normal business hours and expect me to be available if and when they have a query. If you respond, you’re setting a precedent for future behaviour and expectations,” adds Judy.
Beyond this, Tiziana, Judy, and Sam admit that one of the most significant biases that must be broken is society’s perception of accountants in general.
“When people think of an accountant, they think of a man in a grey suit who arrives at your office to tell you how much tax you owe and then sends you a bill,” Tiziana explains. “People often think that accountants are unapproachable number-crunchers who you only call when you’re in trouble. But this isn’t the case. Accountants want to work with clients along different stages of their business journeys and give them sound advice,” Sam adds.
“For most business owners, their companies are their livelihood. Accountants must make sure their clients know that they understand this. We need to make a real effort to show our clients how we can add value to their businesses so that these businesses can thrive and grow,” notes Judy.
“It’s essential that we challenge traditional perceptions about accountants,” says Tiziana. “We need to assure our clients that we see what they are going through in these tough economic times and that we are here to help and support them.”