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Gender bias in insolvency

Radical steps should now be considered to help women working as insolvency practitioners in a profession overwhelmingly dominated by men, says Fiona Hotston Moore, forensic partner at Ensors

Fiona Hotston Moore

It is not a balanced occupation where 79% of the workforce is male by the mid-point of a working life, as is the case with insolvency practice. Furthermore, it’s important that the profession reflects the demography of its clients.

Temporary quotas, however hard they might be to enforce, may even be necessary to ensure that there are women able to offer a mentoring ‘ladder up’ for juniors, and be role models for schools to encourage new female entrants.

Firms that introduced quotas as best practice would certainly send a powerful signal that the status quo is not acceptable. In the last year both the European Central Bank and Lloyds Bank have announced gender quotas for top levels of management.

Action is needed because however reassuring the talk of equality and diversity in the profession, and there are certainly plenty of finely worded corporate documents produced, the statistics tell a different story.

Just under half of all insolvency practitioners under the age of 35 are women. But by the age of 46 most are men – a startling reversal.

Women face inflexible human resources departments and male thinking, particularly around issues such as working hours.

This creates a cycle of inaction and imbalance: fewer women being promoted and accommodated means fewer to bring others in and an entrenching of (largely male) business-as-usual inertia. Imbalance is reinforced and opportunities shrink.

As a campaigner for diversity in professional services, time and again I hear women complain of being denied promotion because they are not part of a male ‘golf course’ networking circuit, or being subtly written-off when they have children. Time and again I also hear that progress is being made.

But ‘progress’ should not use the past as a benchmark for the present. Situations can be better than they were but still not good enough. And a commitment to diversity is not the same as delivering it.

Perhaps not many jobs really get secured on the 19th hole these days but the point is that women generally build less professional networking into their lives than men. Many also feel side-lined from promotion if they leave, even for a few years, to look after children before returning.

I am not suggesting that deliberate female exclusion zones exist around insolvency. We are not living in the 1950s. But I do think that unconscious bias remains amongst men and human resources departments, which in some respects is more insidious and harder to tackle than visible discrimination.

Once you cut through the good intentions and stated aims, the stark reality hits. Women are not making it through in numbers which either represent their gender or the numbers in the profession at earlier points in their careers.

Only 22% of insolvency firm managers at partner/chief executive officer level and above were female in 2008. It is hard to imagine that has changed much since.

Women do take career breaks for children, of course. But what is striking is how little seems to be done to attract them back afterwards. Insolvency practitioner status is one of the hardest professional qualifications to achieve, so what a waste not to encourage people back after a career break.

A membership survey by R3 in 2013 found that of those who thought more could be done by their firms to promote diversity, 43% felt uneasy because the idea ran counter to promoting on merit.

This is a familiar argument: I agree that you do not end one type discrimination by introducing another. But temporary quotas might just be needed to jump-start change. A level playing field would not, I am certain, become a formidable hill ever again.

What is clear is that not having quotas, career breaks, mentoring and role models mean that whilst commitments to diversity are on paper, that is unfortunately where they usually stay.

Posted on 7th August 2014 by



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