It takes an average of seven years longer for women in accounting and finance to reach executive level than their male counterparts, according to a new report.

The study, "The slow path to the top: the careers of women in finance and accounting," was commissioned by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants and conducted by King’s College London and the Economic & Social Research Council. It found that, while the careers of men and women in the accounting and finance sectors initially progressed in near-parallel, the careers of women decelerated in middle management, primarily because of limited peer sponsorship and a lack of high-profile projects or opportunities in comparison to men. At this stage of their careers, women will take an average of seven years longer to progress up to the next tier of executive level compared to men.

The study found a "two-tournament gender system" in which women seem to plateau at a different point than men. Much earlier in their careers, men entered a fast-track route, arriving at upper middle management and executive level far in advance of women and other men whose careers had plateaued.

Female and male advancement in accounting and finance
Female and male advancement in accounting and finance Source: ACCA report, "The slow path to the top"

The report cited prior research that found women occupy only 18 percent of senior roles in the financial services sector, with their representation dropping off from mid-manager level onwards. Despite making up 50 percent of accounting graduates and 45 percent of all accounting employees, the number of women who have reached the partner level in Big Four and midsized accounting firms remains comparatively low at only 15 percent.

“While it is broadly acknowledged that the financial services sector has a long way to go to reach gender parity, with women occupying less than 20 percent of senior roles, this report is particularly interesting as it looks at the factors behind the seven-year lag that women are most likely to encounter when they reach middle management,” said Maggie McGhee, director of professional insights at ACCA, in a statement. “In particular, the research takes a closer look at the ‘confidence myth,' whereby the hindered progression of female employees is attributed to a lack of confidence or appetite to ‘lean in,' which then rationalizes or hides the inequalities or unfair dynamics in the workplace which are actually at fault.”

The study found that for many women, this slowing down of their career progress occurs as they are given fewer strategic, stretch assignments and opportunities than their male colleagues, and they lack the protection from workplace politics or exposure to higher level executives that male employees are more likely to receive from a more senior sponsor or mentor.

“We need this kind of research into the root causes behind workplace inequality to ensure that organizations are aware of any underlying impediments,” said McGee. “It is every organization’s responsibility to review the way they support and open up opportunities to women and other minorities. The finance and accounting profession is committed to improving the workplace experience and progression prospects for women. We need to work together on a true, concerted effort to acknowledge long-standing embedded issues, rectify them, and bring about change.”

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