Everyone benefits from a gender balance in the workplace

Jeannette Vinke: Giving women the tools to make their own career choices is key to gender diversity.

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International Women’s Day is always a chance to reflect on the progress made in gender diversity in the working world. Having worked in the accountancy and finance profession first in practice, then in business and now in academia, I have seen most sides of this sector, at many different levels. And while there is plenty of good news, there is still a lot to do.

It is important to encourage more women into finance. Research shows that companies with a better gender balance in senior positions, perform better. Diversity in general is necessary; women make up about 50 per cent of the population, so meeting their needs means having them represented in companies, and that must include decision-making levels.

Moreover, cutting yourself off from half of your talent pool makes no sense whatsoever – less so when women are often outperforming men in education. Finally it is about basic fairness; it is simply not right that being a woman should mean some career avenues are closed.

Education and skills will be key to achieving gender equality in the workplace. For me, having ICAEW’s internationally recognised chartered accountant qualification, the ACA, is the cornerstone of my career. As a chartered accountant I have always had options, whether that was being in charge of a company’s finances, running my own company or teaching, as I now do.

Over the years I have been an audit manager, a consultant, a stock exchange controller, an M&A specialist and now an educator, and I know that if I wanted to change then my qualification would still open doors.

Many of my best students are girls, and they deserve the chance to go on to become the finance and business leaders of tomorrow. This should not be difficult but somehow it is. I did not find much difference between the way men and women were treated early in my career. Ambitions for the sexes were the same and I never felt disadvantaged by my gender.

As I moved up the ladder there were fewer women, and there were times when it was an advantage – as one of a few, if not the only woman, I was very visible and received lots of opportunity. But if entering the profession was easy, having a job with a lot of responsibilities and doing lots of travelling was hard. I was fortunate in my employers, but as the only woman on the team I definitely was different, and there were some cultural challenges as well, especially leading a predominantly male team.

For me, the key to achieving gender equality will be ensuring that people have choices. I have been lucky to have bosses who empowered me to do my work, not to sit in the office from nine to five, but to take responsibility and manage my own time. This gave me both the flexibility and the motivation to do a good job.

But this flexibility goes for both men and women equally. We really are not so different; most of us want a family life and a successful career. Research shows that male chief executives with full-time working successful wives run their companies in a very different way to ones who have family lives with more traditional roles.

Too often companies still don’t seem to understand that men need flexibility to balance the needs of their home and family life; often there is the unspoken assumption that the family is not their responsibility, which puts unhelpful pressure on both men and women. Understanding that men have a role at home as well will both help them to do better in their jobs and mean there may be more opportunities for women to take roles beyond just the home.

Finally, women have to stick together, just like men always have. At the American University of Sharjah we have a supportive, informal women’s network; we help and mentor each other and celebrate our successes. This is critical for helping women achieve their full potential – doubly so in a more traditional environment.

In my experience, flexibility, education, and mutual support are three approaches that make a real, concrete difference to gender equality, particularly in the finance profession. That does not mean that every woman should feel she should go into extremely busy, pressurised jobs; this will not be right for everyone, and even those who want that will not want it all the time. I have had more low-key jobs depending on where I was in my life. But it is only right, only sensible, and important for the future of the economy, that the choice is theirs to make.

Jeannette Vinke is a senior lecturer at the American University of Sharjah teaching finance and accounting, as well as an advisory board member of the ICAEW, a professional membership organisation that promotes, develops and supports more than 142,000 chartered accountants worldwide.

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