Gender Diversity in Leadership, Making the Breakthrough

Fayez Choudhury | IFAC CEO

Apr 22, 2016 | at Public Accountants and Auditors Board Conference | Harare, Zimbawbe | English

Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests.

I want to start by acknowledging the leadership of the women on this stage this afternoon: Angeline, Gloria, Ferida, Tsitsi and Tendai.  

As business leaders drawn from a range of professions, you are making a significant contribution to Zimbabwean corporate life; and as women, you are role-models for girls not just in Zimbabwe, but all over the continent. Thanks for offering me the opportunity to share this platform.

Yesterday I spoke to this conference about the tremendous importance of a transparent, accountable public sector.

By necessity, my remarks were focused on improving the nation’s economic health—and the constructive, ethical role accountants must play in delivering a better, more sustainable future for all Zimbabweans.  

Today, my remarks are focused on improving the economy in a different way: through embracing, utilizing and engaging with all its talents and capabilities.

The arrival of women as a serious component of the global workforce is a social advance humanity has only achieved in recent decades.

For almost three-quarters of the twentieth century, women were virtually nonexistent in the accounting field. Shut out by sexism and ignorance, women struggled to break into what was a male-dominated profession.

IFAC’s president, Olivia Kirtley, tells a story from 1972.  After graduating from college in the United States, she attended a day-long job interview, and felt confident she’d obtained the role. Instead, she was told that while she was qualified for the position, the firm did not hire women as professionals.  

A few weeks later, she interviewed with the managing partner of a large global accountancy firm who had three daughters who, like her, were seeking job opportunities. Inspired by his own daughters, he took a chance and gave her the entry she needed—and the rest of course is history.

My guess is that Olivia’s story isn’t unique in the world of accountancy, nor in the other professions represented on this stage: law and engineering.

But of course beyond there being a lack of women in the profession, there was a distinctly cultural bias too. Finding people who looked and sounded different was near-impossible. In the mid-70’s to early 80’s, when I worked at PriceWaterhouse in London, there were probably only about 20 professional people of color in a staff complement of some 6000 people.

Had I accepted a partnership when it was offered to me, I would have been the first non-white partner at any of the Big Eight firms that then existed in London.

In terms of young women and people of color entering the profession today—thank goodness they face a very different world.

For example, in Asia, female accountants are thriving—with women comprising 75% of accountants in Singapore, and 69% of accountants in the Philippines.

And in the U.S., women represent half of all new CPAs over the past 20 years.

These are great strides. However, while women today have an increasing presence in the accountancy profession, advancing to senior roles remains a challenge.

In the US, while women represent almost half of all professional staff at accounting firms, just 21% of all firm partners are women. This is the high-end for developed countries around the world, where women make up 5% to 20% of partners in accounting firms.

In developing countries, the story is even worse, with women comprising less than 5% of partners in accounting firms.

Now, you might say “that’s not right.” But diversity and inclusivity in the accountancy profession—or any profession or workplace—is not just about being morally right. It’s smart business strategy.

Teams comprised of men and women of all races and socio-economic backgrounds think more creatively and implement strategic solutions to benefit their clients, their business, and the economy.

According to a recent study, companies with diverse leadership are 70% more likely to capture a new market, and 45% more likely to improve market share.

Another study found that companies with the most diverse leadership enjoyed a 53% higher return on equity than companies with the least diverse leadership.

Moving from the private sector to the government, it is striking that 16 African countries have more women in parliament than Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Rwanda is ranked number 1, Zimbabwe is ranked 28th, while the United States is ranked a lowly 72nd !

Some nations—such as Rwanda and Tanzania—have created a constitutional requirement for the government to include a certain number of women.

But even where there are no quotas, African governments are beginning to include more females.

And these women are making changes: The large number of women in Rwanda’s parliament has facilitated passage of certain laws, such as stricter punishments for violence against women.

Building on our dedication to serving the public interest and strengthening the accountancy profession, the International Federation of Accountants has long been committed to diversity and inclusion. Indeed, I’m actually in the minority at IFAC—over 60% of our staff are women, and the majority of our director-level leadership team are women.

But achieving the breakthrough to greater diversity—both gender and cultural—is a multi-layered effort. Creating real, sustainable long-term change requires a deep, wide focus on inclusion.

In the mid-2000’s I was working at the World Bank. There was a concerted effort underway to hire more women. The desire was to increase the number of women in professional and managerial roles from around 35% to closer to 50%.

I recall non-Western staff believing that the Bank should have been more concerned with building geographical diversity. We had done well at building inclusion, but the understanding that different cultures can provide innovative critical thinking was not yet as advanced.

Their point was simple: the process of hiring a diverse personnel must be complimented by a push to tackle the barriers faced by under-represented groups in having their views and perspectives heard.  

Finding ways to encourage more women—and men—from different socio-economic backgrounds to put their hand up and offer their views without being embarrassed, or afraid, requires exemplary tone-at-the-top, mood in the middle and buzz at the bottom.

An organization-wide inclusion effort may take time build, but it will be critical to both enhanced productivity and a long-lasting diversity breakthrough.

Turning back to the accountancy profession generally, at IFAC we recognize that the global profession achieves its greatest potential when it draws its next generation of leaders from the widest pool of talent. We must recruit the best and the brightest from all backgrounds.

We are delighted with the work of African Women Chartered Accountants. In 2002, when AWCA opened its doors, there were only 407 black women CAs in South Africa.

By 2014 this number had climbed to 3,445. In 2014 alone, 665 black women CAs qualified—more in one year than the total number of black women CAs that existed in South Africa in 2002! The AWCA has played a major role in this growth.

As Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer at Facebook and a leading speaker for women’s empowerment, has said, “We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change.”

Understanding how diversity benefits the profession, we encourage all firms, businesses, agencies, and organizations to support a diverse and inclusive workforce, as well as enact programs that allow women and minorities to ascend to senior roles.

With that, I’m looking forward now to hearing from the panel, and taking back to New York some of the on-the-ground learnings from Zimbabwe.


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