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Women partners in accountancy

Women partners - Sharon Austen and Stephanie Henshaw
Posted by Sharon Austen and Stephanie Henshaw on 08/03/2023

How are career prospects changing for women in accountancy? Our two longest serving women partners discuss their careers and the changes they've seen…

Sharon Austen, Partner

“Professionally, I was never destined to be an accountant. I did a summer job as a purchase ledger clerk and hated it. I then picked the wrong course at university, and after one term knew I had made a mistake. This made me think seriously for the first time about a future career. I realised that accountancy in practice, rather than in industry, looked very different and like something I could really enjoy.

I trained with KPMG, gained my ACCA qualification and loved the job. After five years I found my natural home with PKF Francis Clark. It has been great to be a part of the firm as it has grown and developed.

I became a partner twenty years ago and look after a very varied portfolio of clients. When I became partner, there was no formal process as there is now, but in essence, the firm supported me by listening to my ambitions from the outset. They offered me the opportunity to work four days a week initially as my children were both very young at the time.

There have been very visible signs of progress on gender equality during my working life. When I first became a partner, I was only the second female partner in the firm. Although we still have some distance to go, those numbers have improved significantly in the intervening years at Partner and Director level and it feels like we are on the right path. As a firm we continue to strengthen our initiatives for women within the firm, we offer flexible working, run menopause groups and are continuing to work on our gender pay gap.

One of the most influential things I came to realise is to play to my strengths, regardless of how those strengths may be perceived. Initially I tried to avoid roles that may have been perceived as the ‘female’ role within the team, doing the things you enjoy and are good at leads to a much happier working life. This has made a huge difference at times, and I think it’s important to recognise the impact we can all have in helping others realise their potential.

My family have been really supportive of my working life, which undoubtedly has a significant impact on our home life.”

Sharon, what advice would you give to aspiring accountants?

“I would always encourage women to say yes to opportunities, even if your inner voice doubts you are ready, capable, the best candidate.  It is when I have taken on new challenges or been open about my goals that I’ve had the opportunity to progress.

For women starting out now, I think accountancy offers fantastic opportunities to build a fulfilling, flexible and rewarding career. There is recognition of a full range of talents and abilities, and the chance to create a career that works for you.”

Stephanie Henshaw, Partner

“I became an accountant by accident. After finishing my English degree, I applied to accountancy to avoid unemployment. I trained with Grant Thornton in Reading, and then moved to MacIntyre Hudson. There I developed the firm’s quality control function and part- authored a book on quality control in audit. As a result, I spent 25 years presenting CPD training across the UK on audit, financial reporting and company law. I helped set up the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales’ (ICAEW) Financial Reporting Faculty and was Faculty Chair for nine years.

I moved to Devon from West London, after presenting a course in Plymouth where I met several audit partners from PKF Francis Clark. As I found out more about the firm it seemed an obvious move. I was able to join a growing firm where I could make a real contribution. Also, thanks to the importance the firm placed on work-life balance, I’d also have more time with my young family.

When I was a trainee the intake of men and women into the accounting profession was pretty balanced, but there was a lot of attrition of women accountants after qualification. For example, most women only came back to work part-time after having a baby and usually after a break of a few years.  There was no mechanism for them to keep in touch or to update their skills after a career break.

When I was offered partnership with my previous employer, the existing partnership agreement had no provisions for maternity leave. They’d never had a pregnant partner before. It was updated at my request, and I was the first partner to take maternity leave while in post.  That was 20 years ago and there is a massive difference between the way maternity leave applied to me then and the way PKF Francis Clark is now, which is much more supportive and generous.

Paternity leave for partners is also a recent and important development. My husband gave up work to do all the childcare, which was also radical at the time but not such an unusual arrangement today.

There are far more women in senior leadership positions across the firm and the accountancy profession than there were when I started out. I think because we have become better at retaining and promoting talented women.

At PKF Francis Clark half our operational heads are women, as are 40% of our new partners to be appointed on 1 April. Our current target is for 50% of new directors and 33% of new partners to be female – these are considered realistic and achievable, based on the existing composition of our workforce, at this point in our journey towards an equal gender balance. We are committed to achieving equal representation and as of April we’ll be at 22% of partners being women, which is a good step on that road.

To me it is a no-brainer to support women’s empowerment and gender equality. I believe that society, the economy and this firm benefit from having access to all available knowledge and skills. No gender has the monopoly on leadership capabilities, creativity, innovation or intelligence.

However, empowerment and equality are not a given in all cases: there are those who still want to restrict women’s rights, endanger their safety or remove their agency.  We all need to work against forms of repression or suppression. I believe that gender equality should mean just that: equality regardless of gender.”

Stephanie, what advice would you give to aspiring accountants?

“My top tip to future generations would be to never stop learning. There is always room to grow a little. Look for opportunities, listen to your instincts and learn from those around you. Remember, it’s your career so if you find yourself somewhere you don’t want to be, it’s okay to change direction. Good luck!”