What does today’s tax market look like for women?

Gender diversity has – and remains – a longstanding issue. It’s been discussed across boardrooms globally for decades and, yet, progress still remains to be made. One sector lagging behind is tax.

Just 38.5% of our tax respondents identified as female, whereas the figure of female accountancy & finance respondents was 47.87%.

This isn’t to say there’s been no progression since the late 20th century. But, arguably, changes have been both inconsistent and slow.

When dividing our data, sector by sector, it became apparent that many of our tax respondents felt the sector still has some challenges when it comes to achieving gender equality. Particularly when it comes to visibility of women in senior leadership positions and beyond.

With your comments in mind, we dived into the data, conducted some research to enable us to give you an exploration of the current landscape of women in tax.

Intersectionality in Tax

Intersectionality refers to the various intersections of our identities. It is defined as “the interconnected nature of social categorisations such as race, class, and gender, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage”.

Discussions about intersectionality have been building momentum in recent years, although the framework has been in existence for decades. Like many other sectors, tax firms have been slow to incorporate this into their DE&I strategies, which became apparent when noting the majority of our female respondents identified as both white and middle class.

Here are some stand out figures from our respondent profiles:

When considering the tropes of ‘white feminism’, these statistics are hardly surprising. Based on the first wave of feminism, ‘white feminism’ fails to account for the distinct forms of oppression faced by women from a multitude of other backgrounds.

One Big 4 VAT Associate we spoke with noted that their firm typically focuses their diversity efforts on one group at a time which would completely disregard how these groups intersect.

Ruth Corkin, Principal of Indirect Tax at Hillier Hopkins, spoke with us and shared her observations saying that, as it stands,  she is not seeing many women of colour coming through the ranks.

It could therefore be argued that traditional sectors, such as tax have historically failed to acknowledge the intersection of other identity attributes under their DE&I strategies, which has led to the largely white, middle class make up of women in the sector.

But some top firms are waking up.

On further discussion with Corkin, she believes that right now there is not enough social movement to drive young, working class people, including women into the sector. One bridge to address this would be hiring more people through apprenticeships.

“The drive over the last 10 years to get everyone into university is backfiring, with many calling out what are known as ‘mickey mouse degrees’. We need to value and more importantly pay apprentices more to get better rounded individuals in the office. ”

In her experience, apprentices have been more willing than grads to get their hands dirty in order to become true experts in their field. Whereas some grads have had the attitude that VAT is the tin pot of the tax world, and therefore not good enough.

KPMG’s website boasts that they’re taking intersectionality seriously, particularly in reference to gender equality.

Inclusion, Diversity & Equity Manager, Megan Smith has stated, “At KPMG, intersectionality is embedded at the heart of our inclusion, diversity and equality strategy – this essentially means we actively look to reflect the different experiences of all women in our approach, which can include everything from differences in age or background, to lifestyle and beliefs”

So you’re probably thinking how are they putting this into practice?

Well, here are some examples:

  • Dedicated programmes for women of black heritage
  • Support for women experiencing menopause
  • Recruitment efforts supported by female focused partnerships, including IT’s Not Just for the Boys & Women in the City Afro-Caribbean Network
  • Systems and training that is inclusive of trans women

With a Big 4 firm leading the way, we hope to see these practices trickle down to smaller firms in the coming years.

How are women in tax represented across the leadership grades?

57.4% of our respondents felt there was a lack of diversity at the Senior Management grade and above.

On further inspection of the supporting comments from our survey respondents, it became clear that visibility at top was a real problem. One Corporate Tax Manager at a Top Tier accountancy firm suggested “we need to have more women in management positions.”

To compare our findings with the current picture, we looked at the number of female partners across each Big 4 firm in the UK.

*KPMG , EY,  DeloittePwC 

Although the numbers are currently low – and not proportional to the population of female tax professionals – firms are working to increase the number of women in senior positions in the coming years. At junior levels, all firms are closer to a 50:50 split, with 54% of KPMG’s new graduate or apprenticeship joiners being female. Equally, 41% of PwC’s 2021 equity partner promotions were women, which given the historic disparity of female tax professionals in the workforce, indicates the push to bring more women into the fold of equity partner positions.

Each firm has ambitious goals in the coming years to increase the number of women in leadership roles, which we hope will impact the amount of senior women in tax.

With the number of female junior hires looking promising, retention will be incredibly important to firms going forward.

However, during our conversations with women in the sector, they emphasized that a significant number of women are still leaving firms because of promotion delays or the absence of promotion opportunities. This phenomenon has been linked to caring responsibilities and the inability to commit to the long hours expected, especially within the Big 4 firms.

In one particular promotion meeting, Corkin recalled hearing the phrase ‘ugh, men again,’ underscoring the current frustrations within firms regarding the limited progression of women through the ranks. That’s not to say that those promoted weren’t the best for the role, however when considering this experience against current Big 4 data, it is clear firms need to do more when it comes to retaining female employees and nurturing their progression.

For now, visibility of women in the top seats is still a work in progress.

The Gender Pay Gap in Tax  

These issues around visibility coincide with the numerous comments we received regarding the ever persistent gender pay gap in the sector.

Another Tax Associate stated that firms need to be “giving the same salary and the same benefits as men to women who do the same jobs”.  This sentiment was shared by another of our respondents, this time an in-house Head of Tax who echoed that  “the salary gender gap needs to be solved”.

So what have firms been doing to resolve this nagging problem?

Well, since 2017, pay gap reporting has been mandatory for firms with more than 250 employees. However, even before this requirement, some of the major players in the tax sector had voluntarily disclosed their gender pay gaps. However, the issue lies in the fact that reporting alone isn’t generating the necessary impact to drive the unanimous change that the industry desires.

KPMG openly discuss this on their website whereby they acknowledge that “[d]espite the progress we’ve made and the actions we’ve taken, we’re disappointed that our latest gender pay gap and sexual orientation pay gaps have increased.”

The latest government figures show that a woman’s pay at KPMG is 18.6% lower than a man’s. At PwC women are paid 30.5% less than men, as well as this their median bonus being 52.9% lower. At Deloitte, it’s 12.1%EY are outperforming their competitors, but women are still paid 10.4% less than men.

*compared salaries are adjusted for the actual hours worked/contracted for

One of the reasons this pay gap continues to stain the sector is because of the lack of women in senior positions. It is imperative that the tax sector stand by their commitments and increase the number of women in senior roles.

Until the distribution of men and women at board level evens out, the gender pay gap is likely to remain intact.

How can flexible working impact change for women in tax?  

Hybrid working has pretty much been the standard post pandemic restrictions.

For many it provides that flexibility, whether that’s spending time with your family or doing your laundry in your lunch break.

However, in reference to progression it could be hindering you.

Some have argued that in order to be visible, you need to be in the office. Otherwise you run the risk going under the radar, especially if you’re a generalist within tax. For those of you with niche specialisms, the issue of visibility would be less prominent.

As well as this, it can also lead to you working longer hours. It’s not like in the office when you say you have to leave at 5pm and just log off for the day, some of those working from home will do what they need to do then log back on later that evening.

Hybrid models aren’t for everyone. But flexible working is key in retaining staff in this market, regardless of gender identity.

An indirect tax manager stressed how it was time that became a priority for her after having children. However, finding an in-house opportunity at 4-days per week proved difficult, ultimately leading her temporarily down the contracting route.

With flexible working becoming a norm – not to mention the increased speculation and adoption of a 4-day week –  it could become easier for some women to balance their careers alongside family responsibilities.

However, this may not work for everyone.

The riches are in the niches…

Are there particular tax disciplines that are more inviting to female professionals?

This was a difficult question to answer.

However, from the experiences of those in our research it seems that niche taxes tend to have more women within their teams. These include VAT, Customs & Environmental Taxes.

Corkin partly attributed this to HMRC’s active recruitment drive in the 90’s to get women into the sector, who have now moved on to various firms.

Much of this applies to the Transfer Pricing and R&D arena, too. With these departments being relatively new in comparison to other direct tax disciplines, the uptake of trainees into these disciplines have been a lot more balanced and, thus, the Harvey John tax team have observed more of a gender balance within these arenas.

So where does the tax profession go from here?

Although there are encouraging initiatives in place to increase the visibility of women in tax, there is still a mountain for the sector to climb.

It has been harder to establish what is going on at smaller firms and in-house teams. But when considering Harvey John’s data,  Big 4 information, and the experiences of those in our network,  it is clear a lot of work is still to be done.

Here’s an alarming statistic that reinforces this point. 80.6% of tax professionals stated that gender, race, disability, sexuality, ethnicity, age, or social class could potentially affect progression in their sector.

It is imperative that the tax sector remains firm in their commitments and adopt truly inclusive cultures to encourage women to climb the ladder.

For those of you women in tax who are ready to progress, we conclude this exploration with some helpful advice from Ruth Corkin,

Click here to download our Diversity, Equity & Inclusion report.

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