Women in accountancy

Three women at different points in their careers describe their experiences within the profession

If you decide you'd like to become a chartered accountant, you must choose from a range of different professional qualifications, each one provided by a different professional body. The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW), which has over 140,000 members, offers the ACA qualification.

This combines study with working for an employer, who as part of your training agreement provides paid tuition, study leave and mentoring. Once qualified, the ACA qualification ensures you have the knowledge, skills and experience to work in any industry, anywhere in the world.

To learn more about the qualification, and the ways ICAEW are helping women in the workplace, we spoke to a current ACA student and two women currently working in the profession.

Rachel Edwards

Law undergraduate, Newcastle University ACA student with a training contract at Baker Tilly in Sunderland

What made you choose the ACA qualification?

I was exploring my options at the end of university and felt the ACA qualification would suit many of the transferable skills I developed from studying law. People think you can only be an accountant if you've studied accountancy or maths but that's totally not the case. Very few people I know on the course actually did those subjects at university. The scope of the ACA is much wider; it's as much a business and finance qualification as it is an accountancy one.

How is the ACA structured?

A training agreement lasts three years, with fifteen exams spread over that time. While studying, you have to start a graduate role in accounting and complete 450 technical work days in order to qualify. The ICAEW have various helpful tools to help you find a training agreement, with opportunities available anywhere from one of the Big Four to a smaller, local accountancy firm.

Unlike university where the studying is constant, the ACA has periods where we get down-time. However the weeks and months before our exams are very intense as the amount we cover in a week would probably be stretched over a whole term at university. As part of the course, employers offer study leave over those periods which is helpful, as juggling the two can be a challenge.

What benefits have you found to working while you study?

I learn so much more from being at work as it means I get to see the practical applications of things I learn about in class. It's quite rewarding when that happens as I don't think I'd be able to fully understand some of what I've learnt just from the theory. It also helps in exams as I'm able to solve problems by asking myself what I would do at work in that situation.

What does your work involve?

I work in the audit department so I spend a lot of time out of the office, interacting with clients. Most days are spent on clients' premises, checking their accounts and making sure what they say in them is accurate. I really like getting to see so many different businesses and getting an idea of how they operate. We have clients all over the north east and they are extremely diverse; one week I might be at a charity, and the next I'll be at a big global firm.

What support does your employer offer you while you study?

There's a lot of support when you're studying because everyone at the firm has been through the ACA qualification so they know what it's like. Everyone is really approachable if you have a question, and when you pass your exams, everyone messages you to say congratulations. You'll also often get a message from the directors wishing you good luck the week before which helps make the effort feel worthwhile and shows how much everyone wants to help you get the qualification.

How do you hope your career will progress?

I want to stay with Baker Tilly and progress my career here. Once exams are behind me and I've qualified, I'd like to push on and become an audit manager. Three out of four of our managers are women - it's really good to see that I can progress. I feel this is a very balanced profession with lots of opportunities to advance. I haven't made a secret of my ambitions and my managers have said they want to help me achieve them.

Katie O'Sullivan ACA

Financial Controller, Bancroft Ltd

What made you want to work in accountancy?

I studied economics with accounting at Loughborough University, and felt accountancy would give me plenty of options for the future and provide me with good training in finance and business.

What did you find appealing about the ACA qualification?

I felt it would open doors for me and give me options. It's a well-known qualification within the industry and you're able to get practical experience while you study. The experience helps you become a more rounded accountant, allowing you to go into other lines of work in the future, such as business advisory or strategic planning.

What does your current work consist of?

Bancroft is a medium-sized company, which I prefer as it means I get to see all aspects of the business and can be involved in everything from managing the cash flow to preparing accounts. In general, my day consists of looking at cash flow and projections and doing management accounts, as well as performing audit work at the end of the financial year.

What support does ICAEW offer women in the profession?

As I've progressed in my career, I've noticed a lack of gender balance at management level. For instance, on my first job in practice, there weren't any female partners. Thankfully, ICAEW now offers a lot of support for women trying to go from management positions to board level through their Women in Leadership programme.

They've also been really helpful with people I know who have needed a career break due to having kids. For women in any profession, whether you'll be able to go back to your old job is always a concern at the back of your mind when it comes to having children, so it's nice to know something is being done to support women in accountancy returning to the workplace.

What advice would you give to young women considering the ACA qualification?

In order to get on a training programme, you have to have a company sponsoring you, so it's important to do some work experience at an accountancy practice during your summer holidays one year. It might even lead to a training agreement!

Caroline Chartres MA ACA

Senior Finance Manager, Alliance Boots

What made you want to work in accountancy?

I studied modern languages at university and felt it was important to have another skill alongside being able to speak another language. I was really interested in the idea of being able to go to companies, see how they operate, and develop my business awareness.

What did you find appealing about the ACA qualification?

Those with the qualification have a huge number of opportunities as it's recognised and valued around the world. A lot of the companies I've worked in have had an international dimension to them so I've had a chance to work abroad.

What does your current work consist of?

Currently I provide the finance support for our Property teams, dealing with investment decisions across our portfolio of over 2,500 stores. One day I might be reviewing appraisals for multi-million pound schemes, and the next I might be store visiting with surveyors and understanding the optimal store layouts for our customers. There's never a dull moment!

What support does ICAEW offer women in the profession?

I remember when I first came into the profession, I assumed I would have to stop work once I began to have a family. However, I've now had children and found my employers to be really flexible. They let me work four days a week, so I have an extra day to focus on the family and if there's an inset day at school or one of the children is ill then I'm able to work from home. Everyone I know who has gone on maternity leave has come back into part-time or full-time work depending on what they wanted to do.

What advice would you give to young women considering the ACA qualification?

I think a lot of women don't put themselves out there enough, either because they don't have the confidence or because they are worried about perceptions. As a woman growing up, it can seem that it's un-feminine to have presence and confidence and to put yourself forward, which can be quite difficult to overcome. At the end of the day, you've got to tell people how great you are rather than wait for them to notice.