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Updated: March 9, 2011 11:07 IST

Feminisation of the accountancy profession

D. Murali
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In recent decades, the economic-accounting sector has recorded a boom in the female presence, writes Maria Malatesta in ‘Professional Men, Professional Women: The European professions from the nineteenth century until today’ (www.sagepublications.com). Some of the heartening statistics cited in the book are that female enrolments at the Écoles de Commerce rose to 50 per cent by 1990 from 13 per cent in 1968, and that in Great Britain – which saw the feminisation of the accountancy profession during the 1970s – women comprised 45 per cent of practitioners. “Even the association of public accountants, jealous custodians of their maleness, have opened their doors to women, who increased from 1 per cent of the membership of the ICAEW in 1965 to 9 per cent in 1988.” In comparison, the Indian accounting body’s percentage is well past 15.

Women partners

Until the 1980s, British female accountants preferred to work in the public sector, where it was easier to switch to part-time, the author informs. She adds that since the 1990s their interest in the private sector has grown despite its more rigid working-hours schedules. Ruing that in the large auditing and consultancy firms the percentage of women partners is still low, especially among 30- to 40-year-olds, the author cites the striking skew in the ‘Big Eight’ where there were 6,000 male partners as against 62 female ones. “The majority of young female accountants are hired by firms for office work, and if they do not become partners by the age of 40, they change sectors.”

It may be interesting to learn from the book that in Italy women graduates in economics have more than doubled in the past 30 years: they represented 21 per cent of economics graduates in 1970, but in 1996 almost 47 per cent. “During the 1960s, there were almost no women practising as professional accountants; in 2000, they comprised 22 per cent of the profession. In North-eastern Italy, women work mostly in firms organised as partnerships, while in the North-west they prefer single-proprietor firms.”

New forms of segregation

Of great value to sociologists is the finding reported in the book about how the impact of feminisation on the intellectual professions is still ‘fragile and provisional.’ The difference with respect to the past is that inequalities are no longer due to training, because the number of women graduates now exceeds that of men, the author observes. “Given that today, in almost all the liberal professions, women constitute the majority of new entrants, it is impossible to maintain sexual barriers against their entry.”

She frets, however, that there are new forms of segregation within the professions. Studies quoted in the book speak of how the traditional qualities of the professions (viz. competition, unlimited availability to clients) on which maleness was symbolically constructed in the past have not changed. “The management of time is the gender frontier in the liberal professions.”

Inequality regimes

Malatesta bemoans that it is difficult for women professionals to achieve the apex of their careers, and uses Joan Acker’s phrase ‘inequality regimes’ to underscore the continuing inequalities in all work organisations. She mentions how the reaction to the mass entry of women into decision-making arenas has taken various forms such as excluding them from the taking of crucial decisions because key information remains restricted to small male groups. “Studies conducted within firms have reported a strengthening of the male culture traditionally embraced by managers, and in the male bonding that has always determined the action and reproduction of the masculine managing group. The ‘old boys network’ works as a social and symbolic space in which masculine seduction supports the logic of power and excludes women.”

Another shortcoming of feminisation the author highlights is that numerical growth has not been accompanied by a growth of women’s visibility in the professional public sphere, in the form of representation on the boards or councils of professional organisations. Closer home, it may perhaps be long before a woman CA heads the ICAI as its president.

Multiple strategies

It may enrage today’s women to know that their professionalisation as accountants came about despite a multiple strategy of exclusion, segregation, and hierarchisation which confined women to clerical roles while the free profession and decision-making in its regard were reserved for men, as Malatesta recounts. “Between 1889 and 1895, the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women repeatedly asked the two associations of public accountants, the ICAEW and the Society of Incorporated Accountants and Auditors (SIAA), to accept women as their members. Both associations turned down the request.”

An exciting thing in the field of an otherwise dull field of accounting was the counter-strategy adopted by the London Accountants Association – one of the new associations set up for self-employed accountants, book-keepers, and secretaries – which admitted Ethel Ayres Purdie, an active member of the Women’s Freedom League. The London Accountants Association thus gained the backing of politicians favourable to women’s rights and conquered space within the public utilities, eroding the monopoly of the public accountants, the author traces.

Fighting many odds

The story about women entering the profession in Italy, during the early years of the twentieth century, is one of fighting many odds. “The Collegio dei Ragionieri of Rome accepted the application by Pierina Pavoni Marconi and enrolled her on its register as a free professional. The public prosecutor’s office demanded her immediate cancellation because accountancy was a public profession and could not be practised by a woman who had not yet acquired full citizenship.”

In what can be an example of being undeterred in the face of opposition, Pavoni challenged the decision, and in 1914 the Court of Appeal ruled in her favour, deciding that women could keep industrial and commercial accounts and conduct audits on behalf of judicial authorities. But, as the narrative continues, the Court of Appeal did not pronounce on whether bankruptcy proceedings could be handled by women, referring the matter to the article in the commercial code regulating the activity of accountants in the bankruptcy sector.

What has been the role of the state in the feminisation of the profession? Before you say ‘positive’ you would have to read the intro which reminds that in the first half of the nineteenth century, the state and professional bodies formed an alliance against the feminist movements in order to exclude women from academia, while between 1860 and 1918 states and universities generally supported the entry of women into higher education. “Through the action of parliaments (that of France in 1900, those of Great Britain and Italy in 1919; and that of Germany in 1918 and 1920 for women lawyers), states compelled professional bodies to give women access to professions which they had long been denied…”

Topical reference that can add value to professionals’ shelf.

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