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The benefits of gender diversity in organizations are well known and have been analyzed and quantified, in several studies over the years. Aware of these benefits, audit firms and many other professional organizations have included gender diversity as one of their top business objectives and a key part of their strategies. Despite this, the number of women in the first stages of their audit careers and the number of women in leadership positions at audit firms are not rising at equivalent rates.

This underrepresentation deserves considerable pause, reflection, and discussion. Attracting and retaining female talent is a must if there is to be an enduring, productive profession and sustainable development as a society (Sustainable Development Goal 5 focuses on Gender Equality). At the Instituto de Censores Jurados de Cuentas de España (ICJCE), we believe that the only way to have a realistic picture of the situation and chart a way forward is by gathering information directly from the source.

To that end, in 2021 we engaged in a study with the University of the Basque Country (Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea). The group of researchers, led by Marcela Espinosa, sent a questionnaire to more than 250 individuals, both women and men, who serve as auditors in practice in various positions within big, medium, and small firms, as well as auditors who had left the profession. The official sample included 254 auditors, 61.8% of whom were women and 38.2% of whom were men. The age of the participants varied, with the largest group being professionals aged between 36 and 45 (27.2%), followed by the 46-55 age group (24.0%). In addition, more than half of the participants had children (54.7%), with two children (39.6%) or one child (34.5%) being the most common. The auditors in the sample generally had a high level of experience in auditing, with one-third of them having more than 20 years of experience in the profession (Figure 1).

Figure 1

The questionnaire asked individuals about the lack of women in leadership positions, their perceptions about equal opportunities for professional progress in audit firms, and the main measures taken by audit firms to attract and retain talent by gender and other variables. The questionnaire further supplemented these data using interviews with some of the participants, as well as a review of the existing literature.

The full results of this work are presented in the study Gender Diversity in Auditing (available in English and Spanish), which was released on March 8, 2022, on International Women’s Day alongside a video interview with women leading the auditing profession in Spain.

We are pleased to share a brief overview of the conclusions here. Most promising of the conclusions is that, overall, auditing is considered an appealing profession for women, who tend to enter the profession at high numbers. They do not necessarily appear to be disadvantaged in achieving promotions within the firm, especially in big firms. However, disparities in social and domestic expectations for women and are considered the main barriers to achieving leadership positions.

Secondly, we found that auditors believe that a greater number of women brings distinct benefits to audit firms (Figure 2). The increased presence of women enhances the firm's image, generates greater interest in ethical issues, contributes to sustainability, improves conflict resolution, and increases client confidence.

Figure 2

Women are also more positive about the benefits of their increased presence for audit firms. Respondents in every position within the firm believe a greater presence of women brings advantages to the firm; however, Assistant positions perceive these advantages the most, pointing to a future in which gender diversity is valued more as these Assistants progress in their careers.

The ways in which audit firms are trying to address and support gender diversity are broad. Both women and men value flexible working hours as the most effective measure taken by audit firms to strengthen gender diversity (Figure 3), followed by teleworking and limiting meetings outside working hours.

Figure 3

Audit professionals are satisfied with their work and would recommend audit as a career. Attracting and retaining women to firms is overwhelmingly a positive both for the firm and employees. However, our study shows there is still room for improvement. In this regard, the Instituto de Censores Jurados de Cuentas de España (ICJCE) is taking action and has created two task forces: one on gender equality and one focusing on attracting and retaining talent. We look forward to sharing the outcomes of their work very soon!