Listen: Despite offering unique skills, women still come up short in professional services leadership roles

Why are so few so few women in leadership in professional services although the audit, tax and advisory industry has transformed significantly over the years with a more diverse skills pool?

Despite developing the same skills and receiving the same qualifications as their male counterparts, female professionals in the industry still fill traditionally female-orientated roles in commerce.

This is arguably one of the reasons why traditionally male-dominated industries, such as the audit industry, are still slow to transform at a leadership level, says Michelle Olckers, co-CEO of Mazars in South Africa.

While it is vital for an industry such as this to include a much larger female component in its leadership structures, the audit industry has made good strides recently in increasing the number of female leaders on their executives in the sector, she says.

According to the latest numbers from the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants, around 40% of the chartered accountants (Cas) currently active in the industry are female, but those numbers are not reflected at the top levels of audit firms.

“Women add a huge amount of value to leadership and we are increasingly viewed as critical to driving the future success of the industry. We need to start looking at the reasons why there is so little flow-through of female leaders and put more plans in place to do something about that,” says Olckers.

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Promising candidates for leadership still overlooked

Speaking from her own experience, even with corporate clients, she points out that while many companies are putting initiatives in place to increase the number of women who make it to top positions, many of the most promising candidates are still overlooked.

“I believe that more focus should be put on developing and then supporting women in leadership roles in South Africa. These appointments often just exist to satisfy external perception and board composition requirements. As a result, not enough time is spent on developing the best candidates for these roles and companies often only include the minimum number of women in their leadership structures to fill a quota.”

Olckers adds that not only does this lead to promising candidates being overlooked, but it also limits the useful contribution women can make in leadership roles.

“If you fundamentally shift the focus to growing and supporting skilled female leaders within these organisations and showing them that it is not necessary to take a back seat or choose between a family and a successful career, for instance, I believe that there will be a much more natural flow-through of strong female leaders who can do more than just fill a mandated spot on the board.”

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Women offer unique leadership skills

Secondly, Olckers says that the highly regulated, strongly process-driven profession needs the unique skills that women have to offer to be successful. Mentorship programs are one of the most important tools to help companies build a leadership structure with a bigger female component.

“Looking at my own background, taking on leadership roles and eventually rising to the co-CEO level has been a journey that included many obstacles and sometimes pushed me far out of my comfort zone, in an effort to be understood for my different perspective and style.

“I was fortunate to work with men who believed in my abilities, were prepared to accept these differences as an advantage and who were willing to mentor me. We only truly grow further by learning from the experiences of those who came before us,” says Olckers.

The ability to network is also a critical skill required to be noticed and to make your mark in a male dominated profession, taking into consideration that women tend to network differently from men.

“With this in mind, I would say that leaders should make it a priority to identify and mentor strong candidates. At the same time, I would encourage young women in this industry to develop their networking skills, find strong mentors on their career path and define their own purpose and uniqueness.”

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Older leaders will mentor younger women

Olckers says as more women become leaders in this industry, it will also become easier for young women to find and connect with females in senior positions who understand them and with whom they can relate.

Mazars prides itself in taking an informed approach to grow female leadership talent among its ranks. “We believe in the power of networking, which is why we spend time and effort to build communities of women internally. We also have a coaching programme that helps to guide women, upskill them and support them through the business as they grow. We also place significant importance on developing people strategically, which is why analysing the pipeline of professionals that we have internally, is a constant focus.”

Olckers finds it encouraging that the list of female leaders in business is growing across the board. “Research shows that around 39% of senior management positions in Africa are now filled by women. It is up to the audit industry to not only keep pace with these numbers, but to lead the way as we want to continue to service and advise companies from a diversified vantage point that fits the leadership of the future.”

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