By the South African Institute of Professional Accountants
In recent years, the accountancy profession has undergone a significant transformation. More women than ever recognise accountancy, and financial services in general, as a viable career option. However, numbers cannot be the be-all and end-all of empowerment.
Leadership, visibility and corporate culture are areas where there is still a way to go in securing equality for women in accountancy. With over a decade of experience in the accountancy profession, Faith Ngwenya, Technical & Standards Executive for the South African Institute of Professional Accountants (SAIPA), shares her insight and recollection of the ever-changing ebbs and flows of being a woman in accountancy, as well as her hope for the industry.
Who are the women who have inspired you along your professional journey?
There are too many to name! Having grown up in a township, there weren’t a lot of black women who were accountants. So, we had to look to other professions, like medical doctors to inspire us to say, “I want to reach that level”. The women professionals who achieved great things, despite the harsh circumstances of a pre-democratic South Africa, shaped my perception of what I could achieve.
Looking to the present, I’m deeply inspired by the young women entering the accountancy profession today. I admire their tenacity, integrity, and ambition – we need more stalwarts of such calibre in our profession.
Looking to the next generation, young women make up a large number of enrolments in accounting degrees, but their numbers drop significantly come graduation. Why is this the case?
Dropout rates are influenced by numerous factors, like financial difficulty or lack of clarity on your desired career path. What is unique in the high dropout rate of women versus that of men is higher expectations in terms of family responsibilities. Young women are often the ones carrying the responsibility of maintaining their household and caring for family members. The gendered division of labour in the home certainly plays a role in the barriers young women face in becoming accountants. Studying accounting is an intensive feat that requires your utmost focus and dedication. Many young girls are prevented from giving it their all due to their circumstances, despite their best efforts.
At SAIPA, however, we have bucked that trend. Ten years ago, men made up two-thirds of the membership. Currently, there are just over 50% of women Professional Accountants (SA). With our trainees, the numbers are even more encouraging, with 65% of these young professionals being women. This bodes well for further closing the gender disparity of the presence of women in the profession.
What advice would you give to young women studying accountancy and looking to have a successful career?
The pathway to becoming a Professional Accountant (SA) can seem long and demanding, but it is so rewarding. Remain committed to going the full distance. This journey will not be without its challenges, but women are remarkably resilient. The reward in the end is a fulfilling and impactful career in a profession that is ready and waiting for more dynamic women professionals to propel it to new heights.
What role do accredited women have to play in supporting the next generation of female professional accountants?
Young people require role models and mentorship. I encourage women already in the profession to make themselves and their achievements visible. By upholding ourselves as professionals of integrity and demonstrating the impact of our work, we act as a light, beckoning young women towards the profession. Just being visible can make a young woman say “oh wow, that’s a career I could do!”.
I often think of the idea of ‘influencers’ and how ‘normal’ people who put themselves out there can build community and influence thousands, if not millions of people. I encourage the women in our profession to do the same, at whatever scale is comfortable for them. Taking one person under your wing can make a difference. Through mentorship, we can change the course of someone’s entire life.
How can the accountancy profession ensure young females thrive?
Like most professional careers, the barriers women face have shifted to a more social nature. Entry has become easier, but internal hurdles remain. Talent retention is key for the longevity of any profession. More young professionals are demanding that their work aligns with their values and enables both their personal and professional well-being and development. Creating an inclusive culture that is intolerant to discrimination and diversifying leadership positions would go a long way towards retaining young female talent.
What is your hope for the accountancy profession?
We need to end the ‘old boys club’. Funnily, the ‘boys club’ has become more diverse as it now comprises gender and culture inclusivity. There needs to be further emancipation of our young black women – they must be enabled to pursue accountancy as a career of choice. They, like all women, have the resilience and capability to become the Professional Accountants (SA) of the future.
I’m encouraged by the increasing number of women present within the accountancy profession. However, high male dominance is still prevalent in leadership ranks and within specialisations, such as tax. These two areas should be a focus for our industry as we work to be more equitable.