Women in Accounting: 3 Experiences of Becoming an ACCA Affiliate

Credit: Becca Tapert - Women in the Accounting Sector: 3 Experiences of Becoming an ACCA Affiliate

To celebrate International Women’s Day, we brought together 3 ACCA qualified finance professionals to discuss what it’s like to be a woman in the accounting sector.

International Women's Day is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women, but it also marks a call to action for accelerated gender equality. Equality isn’t just a women's issue, it's a business issue. 

Gender equality is essential for economies and communities to thrive. A gender-equal world can be healthier, wealthier and more harmonious. 

Read on to find out the career paths of 3 women, their experiences (and advice) on becoming an ACCA affiliate along with what needs to change for a more equal workplace.

Q. How did you juggle working and studying for your professional accounting exams?

Kate Thornhill, Business Change Manager at AIB

I have memories of trying to finish a reconciliation, jumping in a car and dashing into lectures in town, studying in the lecture, studying after the lecture and coming home and being exhausted. I did that for a couple of years and just wanted to get through the exams. 

So, I did them as often as I could and as many as I could. And there were times it tested friendships because I missed things, but your real friends understand that. It’s a short-term thing. So there was an unending road for a while but actually, once it’s over, it’s over!

Orla Carolan, Financial Services Advisor at Grant Thornton

I was always a bit of a swat so I enjoyed it. It was a good focus for me and I did as many exams as I could as often as I could. My lasting memory is actually being able to share the success with my family. They were proud of my achievements completing the exams and getting the qualification. So my memories are positive even though I didn’t get any time off! 

Q. We always say that it’s not just the technical aspects of a qualification but it’s about bringing resilience into the workforce. Have you found that? 

Alisa Hayden, Partner at PwC

I think it’s about the resilience it gives you. It’s not just a technical qualification but more about the person you become by virtue of going through it because you had to be focused, manage your time and have a goal. 

I went on and did an MBA while working and all of those qualities and characteristics came into play again as I had to be focused.  

Orla Carolan, Financial Services Advisor at Grant Thornton

I think having the qualification gives you the confidence to do other things and confidence in your CV. So even if you’re looking at completely different roles which is what I’m doing now, it’s given me a really good building block and it’s a really good badge or brand to have on your CV and you know whoever you’re speaking to knows you’ve worked very hard for it.

Q. How do you think the ACCA qualification has helped your career?

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Kate Thornhill, Business Change Manager, AIB

Some employers want to hire your standard accountant. Many people want to be a standard accountant. I didn’t. So if you don’t want to do that you need to put your hand up and say you’d like to do something else. 

I’ve had some really cool roles and I moved out of accounting slowly. But I never regret doing ACCA as all the skills and knowledge I’ve built up has been useful. 

Alisa Hayden, Partner at PwC

What I found good was the mobility of the ACCA qualification. I trained in Trinidad but when looking at where you might like to work you can work in Asia, UK, Ireland, lots of different places. 

It also gave lots of opportunities. It’s a broad business degree and not just accounting. So it gives you a lot of confidence to go on and do other things or get involved in different groups or societies. 

Q. Have you found as a woman that employers have been accommodating of your professional and personal aspirations?

Orla Carolan, Financial Services Advisor at Grant Thornton

I’ve had the experience of both. I worked for JP Morgan for twelve years so I clearly enjoyed working with them. They were great to work for and supportive of career aspirations and opportunities for mobility to move to different roles.

But you need to drive your own career. An employer can be supportive and accepting, but you need to drive yourself forward and know where you’re going. So, if someone is in the middle of a qualification you’re stuck into the study but when you come out you can see it as a more holistic qualification that you can do lots with. 

Kate Thornhill, Business Change Manager, AIB

I think different employers have been open to different degrees. I’ve been in AIB now for over twelve years so it’s working for me. But, I’ve had different roles with smaller employers with less flexibility. So when it wasn’t for me, I moved on. 

You have to be in charge of your own career. Not everyone wants to be CFO or CEO and that’s fine. But you have to find out what it is about your job that you like and make the most of it.

Q. Has gender equality or inequality played a role in your career? Have you noticed it or come across it in your roles?

International Women's Day podcast panel

Alisa Hayden, Partner at PwC

I’m conflicted by this. There needs to be more diversity but then I think about diversity. I’m not just talking about gender but a much broader cultural diversity. So I sometimes feel both - cultures and when it comes to women - and it’s doing me a disservice. I’m being favoured but I don’t want to be. 

I feel like it’s making things worse, so when my husband says he can’t leave to pick up the kids and I say why not? That’s not fair to me either. So I think we need a real cultural mindset shift and that’s not going to help my generation. 

Hopefully, my kids see both parents are working and invested in their welfare which may change the mindset. The whole concept of maternity leave, biologically I have to take time off but that doesn’t mean the father doesn’t want to be involved either. We need to do a much better job of it. 

Kate Thornhill, Business Change Manager, AIB

Have I noticed it? Yes. But, I don’t think it’s impacted me to a huge extent. There are things that impact women differently than men. Obviously we have to take maternity leave and be more proactive in taking parental leave. So I would love to see more of that balance a bit better.

You do step out of the workforce more and I have found that challenging. But that’s the choice you make and I’m still in a role that I really enjoy and did well in my previous roles so I don’t think it’s a disadvantage in terms of where I got versus my peers, male or female. 

I do think things are changing but I think organisations need to be proactive about making that happen.   

Q. What advice would you give to people entering the workforce and can they affect change by their expectations?

Orla Carolan, Financial Services Advisor at Grant Thornton

Yes, in terms of how they behave and push themselves forward and are assertive. Plus, if they really manage themselves with colleagues and organisations they can affect change and contribute. 

Kate Thornhill, Business Change Manager, AIB

I look after the graduates at work and the one thing we say is that we see their positivity and flexibility. They don’t have hang-ups about all the red tape we have from our years of experience and have unconscious bias. They just go in and say “why can’t we do it this way?”


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Topics: ACCA