How to Interest Young Women in Accounting Careers
- The Newcastle University Business School held focus groups with current accounting students to learn what barriers keep women from applying to business programs.
- A Women in Business and Accounting event allowed potential applicants to learn about opportunities in the field, meet like-minded peers, and hear from successful businesswomen.
- The main activity was an Afternoon Tea, where participants were asked to visualize women in business and draw pictures based on their perceptions.
A business career can be exciting and rewarding, but most women don’t seem to realize that. They are especially underrepresented in the fields of accounting and finance, in part because so few women apply to study those disciplines. How can business schools reverse that trend?
That’s the question we’ve been asking at Newcastle University Business School in the U.K., where we had been seeing a decline in the numbers of women accepting accounting offers. At one point, women made up only about 15 percent of our cohort. Like other institutions of higher learning, we consider issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion to be of key importance. Therefore, we have invested time and effort in various initiatives designed to attract more women to our programs.
Our university offers many ways that potential students can engage with the school before enrolling—for instance, by attending open days and “taster” days that offer them quick introductions to our programs. To address the gender disparity in finance and accounting, however, we wanted to try something new. Specifically, we decided to organize an event that introduced young women to the accounting and finance fields and allowed them to interact with successful female leaders. We hoped such an event would inspire them not only to apply to our accounting and finance programs, but also to accept our offers.
The results of our efforts have been encouraging. This year, for one of our degree programs, we have seen a 50-50 split between men and women. However, we are not sitting back and considering the job done. To keep this success going, we need to continue to develop and run such programs.
Our journey began in April 2023 as we started exploring what was holding young women back from pursuing careers in accounting. We first ran focus groups with female students who were in our current accounting program.
Because these students already had chosen to go into business fields, they struggled somewhat to understand what other women would see as barriers. However, they did share insights such as the following: “There is a general perception that accounting is for those who wish to be accountants, very much like those who choose medicine wish to be doctors. This is far from the truth. The program offers a much wider area of subjects and opportunities outside of accounting.”
They also noted that potential students share a common belief that they need to be good at math to pursue careers in accounting and finance. While students do need to have a general comfort with numbers, they don’t need additional math courses beyond the secondary education level.
To address the gender disparity in finance and accounting, we organized an event that introduced young women to the accounting and finance fields and allowed them to interact with successful female leaders.
Feedback from the focus groups reassured us that we had an attractive degree to offer. Students mentioned that they liked our relationship with PwC, our courses were interesting, and Newcastle was a great city. So, our next question was: How can we inspire women to apply to our programs?
Focus group participants all agreed that, before they had arrived on campus, they would have liked to attend events that highlighted the range of possible careers that are available in accounting and finance. They also would have enjoyed having opportunities to talk to current students. Their input really helped shaped our next steps.
Organizing Our Outreach
We put together an event called Women in Business and Accounting, which was aimed at young women who were 16 or 17 years old. We had clear objectives: We wanted participants to connect with like-minded people, to be inspired, and to gain a better understanding of the field. The event was held in October, which is the time when most students are thinking about their subject choices and drafting their applications.
Women in Business and Accounting consisted of three main components: an informational session on what it means to be an accountant, an Afternoon Tea, and a panel featuring successful women in business. Throughout the day, we arranged to have a mix of academic staff and current students on hand to answer any questions, make sure attendees felt welcome, and encourage student engagement.
As the activities progressed, we ran a live poll to gather student feedback. We asked: How is the event going? Are you connecting with like-minded people? Are you feeling inspired? Have you gained a better understanding of business and accounting? The poll enabled us not only to continuously gauge how the event was unfolding in the moment, but also to gather information we could use to improve it in the future.
Talking Over Tea
The main activity of the day was the Afternoon Tea. During each of the tea’s three courses, we had students complete specific tasks, from reflecting on their skills and strengths to exploring their perceptions of successful women in business. We called this the “Hopes and Dreams” exercise.
Over the starter course of sandwiches, we asked participants to consider three questions: Why did you attend the event today? Can you find one thing you and your tablemates all have in common? Can you find one thing you all differ on?
Over the main course of scones, we wanted them to discuss three more questions: Why does a career in business and accounting interest you? What do you want from your career? What do you think you personally can bring to the field?
Participants drew images of what they imagined successful women in business looked like.
Finally, over dessert, we asked them to envision a successful woman in business—and draw pictures of the images in their minds.
Just under 60 students attended the tea. Because it was a relaxed environment, students engaged with other as they completed their tasks. The visuals from the students were fantastic, and we could see they had really thought about what it means to be a woman in business today.
Presenting Success Stories
The day ended with a panel presentation featuring five successful women from diverse sectors. We wanted students to see the various routes they could take if they pursued careers in accounting and finance.
The panelists included an audit partner from audit and assurance firm UNW; an audit manager from PwC; the deputy director of financial control from Newcastle University; the head of outsourcing at accounting firm RMT; and the chief financial officer of Ramarketing, a B2B life sciences marketing company. The five women offered several pieces of advice to help future businesswomen be successful:
- Know your self-worth and have confidence in your opinion.
- Be open to the opportunities and advantages of the role. Some positions offer chances to travel, while others provide flexible working conditions.
- Never be afraid to speak up during your career. You are there because you deserve to be.
Panelists described the challenges they had faced throughout their careers and also discussed how they had overcome those challenges to become successful.
In addition, the panelists all shared that they loved their jobs, in part because “no day is the same” and the jobs “still offer new opportunities.” While they described the challenges they had faced throughout their careers, they also discussed how they had overcome those challenges to become successful. Interestingly, one of the younger panel members said she had not experienced any barriers. Those who had had negative experiences tended to be part of an older generation of businesswomen.
The positive messages really kept students engaged. We felt we had achieved our main objective of inspiring students and getting them excited about their career opportunities.
At the end of the day, we conducted an additional poll. Ninety-six percent of students said that they found the session helpful, and 92 percent said that they felt inspired. Many told us that they had not realized all that accounting had to offer.
Respondents also offered great feedback that we can use to organize future events. For instance, they loved the interactive activities and, in fact, wanted to see more of them. This is something for us to keep in mind—we know that we must provide some information for context and knowledge, but we will look for ways to increase interactive engagement. Students told us they thoroughly enjoyed the presentation by successful women and suggested that we add another panel that featured current students.
One student’s comments summarized what we had hoped that participants would learn: “that accounting isn’t just sitting behind a desk. There are lots of travel and communication opportunities with clients and other areas of the business.”
While we are pleased with the success we’ve had so far, we know that none of our initiatives will be quick solutions to attracting more women to our accounting and finance programs. At the same time, we are keen to expand the diversity of our applicants in terms of ethnic minorities. We have already reached some of these minorities with our new initiatives.
But we know we must do more. For the future, we see these initiatives as recurring parts of our program and school development. We’re just getting started.