Women in Accounting: Breaking Barriers, Shaping Progression

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By CPA Maurine Kipchumba

The field of accounting has undergone significant transformations over the years, evolving from a male-dominated profession to one that increasingly embraces diversity and gender equality. Women have made remarkable strides in the accounting industry, shattering glass ceilings, and contributing their unique perspectives to the profession. 

The history of women in accounting can be traced back to the early 20th century, a time when women’s participation in the workforce was limited, and traditional gender roles were deeply ingrained in society. During this era, accounting was perceived as a male-dominated domain, and women were often relegated to clerical roles within accounting firms. However, tenacious and pioneering women challenged these stereotypes and sought opportunities to prove their abilities in accounting.

One such trailblazer was Mary Harris Smith, a name often mentioned in the annals of women’s history in accounting. She achieved a significant milestone by becoming the first woman in the world to complete the rigorous qualification process of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW). Her determination and commitment to excel in a field dominated by men were remarkable, but the journey was far from smooth. Despite her qualifications, Mary Harris Smith was denied membership by the ICAEW simply because she was a woman. It wasn’t until 1919 when the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was passed in the United Kingdom that women were granted the right to enter various professions, including chartered accountancy. Mary Harris Smith, then, became the world’s first female Chartered Accountant, marking a historic turning point in the profession’s demographics.

Challenges Faced by Women in Accounting Profession

Throughout history, women in accounting have encountered several challenges that have hindered their progress in the profession. African women in the accounting profession, like their counterparts in other regions, face various challenges that can impact their career advancement and success. These challenges are often shaped by cultural, societal, and economic factors unique to the African context. Some of the key challenges include:

Gender Stereotypes: Traditional gender roles and stereotypes may persist more predominantly in African settings, leading to biased perceptions about women’s capabilities in leadership and decision-making roles in the accounting field. These stereotypes can limit opportunities for women to advance.

Limited Access to Education: In some African countries, there are disparities in access to quality education for girls and women, which can affect their ability to pursue accounting as a career. Unequal educational opportunities can result in fewer women entering the profession.

Work-Life Balance: African women often face significant pressure to balance their professional careers with family responsibilities, including caring for children and elderly family members. This challenge can impact their ability to take on demanding roles and work long hours.

Gender Pay Gap: In many African countries, a gender pay gap exists, with women earning less than their male counterparts in similar roles. This wage disparity can discourage women from pursuing or remaining in the accounting profession.

Lack of Mentorship and Networking: African women in accounting may have limited access to mentors and professional networks, which are crucial for career development. A lack of role models can make it difficult for them to navigate the profession effectively.

Cultural Norms and Expectations: Traditional cultural norms and expectations can sometimes discourage women from pursuing careers that require them to work closely with men or in male-dominated fields like finance and accounting.

Discrimination and Harassment: Some African women may experience workplace discrimination or harassment based on their gender. This can create a hostile work environment and hinder career progression.

Access to Resources: Access to resources such as training, professional development opportunities, and funding for education can be limited for African women in the accounting profession, making it harder for them to advance their careers.

Limited Representation in Leadership Roles: African women are often underrepresented in leadership positions within accounting firms, professional organizations, and regulatory bodies. This lack of representation can result in fewer opportunities for women to influence industry decisions.

Lack of Awareness and Support: In some cases, there may be limited awareness and support for initiatives aimed at promoting gender diversity and inclusion in the accounting profession in African countries.

Achievements and Contributions

Despite these challenges, women in accounting have achieved remarkable success and have significantly contributed to the profession. Their achievements and contributions are a testament to their determination, resilience, and dedication. Let’s delve deeper into some of these achievements and contributions:

Leadership Roles: Women have broken through the glass ceiling to hold leadership positions in major accounting firms, including becoming managing partners and CEOs. For instance, the current Kenya’s Auditor-General is Nancy Gathungu who took office in 2020 is a great example of women influencing the direction of the accounting profession.

Advocacy and Support: Women’s advocacy groups and associations have played a vital role in supporting women in accounting. Organizations such as The Association of Women Accountants of Kenya (AWAK), the American Women’s Society of CPAs (AWSCPA), and many others provide support, resources, and networking opportunities for women in the field.

Increased Representation: The percentage of women in the accounting profession has steadily increased over the years. More women are pursuing careers as Certified Public Accountants (CPAs), Chartered Accountants (CAs), and Certified Management Accountants (CMAs).

Innovation: Women in accounting have played pivotal roles in driving innovation within the profession. They have been at the forefront of developments in areas such as sustainability reporting, forensic accounting, and the integration of technology in accounting practices.

Diversity Benefits: Research has shown that diverse teams, including those with gender diversity, often lead to better decision-making and improved financial performance in accounting firms and organizations. Women’s perspectives and contributions have enriched the profession.

Future Prospects

As we look to the future, the prospects for women in accounting continue to improve. Several factors contribute to this positive outlook:

Changing Mindsets: There is a growing recognition within the accounting profession that diversity, including gender diversity, brings fresh perspectives and enhances overall performance. This shift in mindset is gradually influencing hiring practices and career advancement opportunities.

Supportive Initiatives: Many accounting firms and organizations have implemented initiatives aimed at increasing the recruitment, retention, and advancement of women in the profession. These initiatives include mentorship programs, diversity and inclusion training, and flexible work arrangements.

Educational Opportunities: More women are pursuing accounting degrees and professional certifications. Educational institutions are actively encouraging female students to consider careers in accounting, providing scholarships and support to help them succeed.

Work-Life Balance: Flexible work arrangements, remote work options, and family-friendly policies are becoming more common in the accounting profession. These changes make it easier for women to balance their professional and personal lives effectively.

The journey of women in accounting from being marginalized to becoming an integral part of the profession is a testament to their resilience, determination, and talent. While challenges persist, significant progress has been made, and the future holds even greater promise. Women continue to break barriers, shape the profession, and contribute to the evolving landscape of accounting.

As the accounting field increasingly embraces diversity and equality, the invaluable contributions of women will undoubtedly continue to enrich and strengthen the profession for generations to come. The stories of Mary Harris Smith and countless other women in accounting serve as inspiring reminders of what can be achieved when barriers are challenged and shattered. The path to gender equality in accounting is a journey marked by progress, potential, and, ultimately, success for all.

CPA Maurine Kipchumba, MBA is a member of ICPAK


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