Service: Human resources 

Topic: Women in business 

Women in leadership roles – a fairy tale or achievable?

By Sonal Shah

08 Dec 2021

Historically women have been underrepresented in the accountancy, tax, and advisory sector, but in recent years have made great strides towards gender equality.

Students applying to study accountancy/tax are now around 50% female, which bodes well for the next generation, but some of the same old obstacles remain, compounded by the lack of women in senior positions. Statistics gathered from the 2020 Accountancy Age Top 50+50 survey also reflects this, whilst nearly half of all qualified accountants at that time were female (45.47 percent), only one-fifth of senior roles within the sector was occupied by women.

So, what would encourage more women to pursue leadership roles in the industry? 

Similar to most firms, Gerald Edelman still needs to strike more of a balance to reduce the gender gap, but we are committed to addressing this and have stretch targets set for the next three years. By creating an equal and diverse team, we hope to attract, develop and retain top talent, while also helping towards a positive shift within the industry.

I am often asked what advice I would share with women entering the sector, or those already in the profession but unsure how to get to the top or take that leap. Here are my top four:

1. Find a mentor

I would strongly recommend seeking out a mentor as early on as you can in your career to support you as you navigate the industry and find your niche. Although I started my career as an accountant, I now specialise as an international tax advisor. A good mentor can be an invaluable sounding board offering wisdom, insight and help you to bring out the best in yourself – whether it’s a talent or a better understanding of what you enjoy or dislike in a role. My mentor, a senior partner at Gerald Edelman, has been fundamental to my career journey. He never gave up on me and his unwavering faith helped me realise my potential. We have a mentoring programme at Gerald Edelman, where everyone can select a mentor from the partnership team. Not every workplace offers such a brilliant opportunity, but there are independent mentoring/coaching programmes out there and it’s well worth seeking these out.

2. Push yourself and play to your strengths

One of my most significant strengths is resilience, which I have had to lean on several times throughout my career. I remember feeling honoured and excited when I was invited to attend my first ever International Tax conference in Marbella. This was a huge opportunity for me to raise my profile, but as soon as I arrived, I experienced crippling anxiety and just wanted to hide in my room for the duration. I managed to overcome my fears by reminding myself why I had been asked to be there in the first place, and that I was a valued individual. This renewed my confidence and allayed my fears. Thankfully women are being represented at conferences more than ever, but it is still so important to seize every opportunity to take the stage, speak up, and be visible. Women need to network more and initiate meetings. I often look around at business breakfasts or lunches and notice how few women there are. Women are not transacting enough, and this is vital for getting ahead.

3. Be bold and fearless

When you show up to the game, you are there to win regardless of your gender – do not limit yourself. Have a clear purpose and be bold. Having the drive, passion and belief in yourself, plus the confidence to push yourself forward makes all the difference. I have always promised myself that I will run towards what frightens me the most, which is why I love rollercoasters! When I was asked into the partnership at Gerald Edelman, I was terrified, but I said yes. The 20 months since then has certainly given me the same thrills as a rollercoaster. I am still afraid of failing but I remind myself how contagious fearlessness can be, and that I must keep the promise I made to face challenges head-on. Without a leap of faith, we will never discover what we are truly capable of. 

4. Achieve a balance that is right for you

There is a misconception that it has to be all or nothing when it comes to taking on a senior role, that you must commit yourself fully and prioritise it above everything. This can be off-putting as we consider the impact on current or future aspirations and dependencies. But if you know what is important to you and look for ways to blend all the treasured elements of your life, you can carve out a scenario that works without compromising your own happiness. Seek a dynamic solution that incorporates all that you want to do and achieve and revisit it regularly to tackle anything that is not working before it becomes an issue. The truth is, your sense of balance is completely within your control – rethink, reinvent and reset as and when needed, and never lose sight of your goals. 

Gandhi is quoted as saying ‘be the change you want to see in the world’ and I would urge you to try and do exactly that. When I transitioned from senior manager to partner at Gerald Edelman, I was acutely aware of the shortage of women role models in the industry. This inspired me to create a diversity, inclusion and equality committee called Support, Inspire and Advise (SIA), to help drive change both at Gerald Edelman and within the industry at large. It is early days for SIA, but the hope is that it will inspire women and those from diverse backgrounds, help them share their personal challenges, celebrate their successes, and support them to progress. 

Our collective efforts to once and for all eradicate barriers and create an inclusive leadership culture need to continue apace. Finding success in a male-dominated industry is a challenge, but by no means impossible. Hard work is a given but there is always room at the table for those who are willing to earn their seat. Success is what you make of it – design success on your own terms, achieve it by your own rules and live a life you are proud to live. Trust your instincts, back yourself, give it your all, and enjoy the journey!

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