Championing Women in Accounting

by | Mar 8, 2024

In the UK accounting industry, strides towards gender equality have illuminated the path for countless women, yet the journey remains arduous with barriers to leadership persistently evident. As of recent years, while women constitute nearly half of the professional accounting workforce, their presence dwindles alarmingly at the senior level, a disparity that speaks volumes about the systemic challenges still at play. This International Women’s Day, Cottons Group stands in solidarity with the global movement towards gender equality, reflecting on our own efforts to cultivate a workplace where women’s careers can flourish unimpeded by outdated societal norms. 

We recognise that achieving gender equality in the accounting profession is not just about increasing numbers but nurturing an environment where women are empowered to lead, innovate, and inspire.  


The testimonials of change 


Emma Reid, an experienced partner with nearly two decades at Cottons, shares her insights on the evolving landscape for women in accounting and beyond.  

Having been at Cottons for nearly 20 years I am proud to say it is a business where I have never seen discrimination against gender – each day we listen to all voices, celebrate successes and create opportunities for the team equally. Often attending events for small businesses, I have noticed a very definite trend towards the room becoming full of women business owners, all with such interesting and passionate stories. 


Despite obvious progress, gender bias and inequality very much still exist around the world, and we must inspire women where possible not to succumb to it, urge them to stand up to it and refuse to let it create self-doubt. You can start that business, you can excel in male dominated industries, you can pursue career opportunities while planning a family, and above all you can be you. People outside of work say to me all the time “How do you do it?”. That question, I suspect, is asked less frequently to my male counterparts. I have no answer to the question, nor do I want to find one, there is no secret formula or magic wand that people seem to think I may have, it works because I want it to and because I’ve never questioned that it wouldn’t or let that be an option. 


I’m not suggesting it’s easy but being female should not define your destiny. Women should never stop themselves from entering a career or taking an opportunity because they may want a family in the future or already have one – do what makes you, you. I’m very proud to be a mother and to embrace everything that comes with that, but I never wanted it to solely define me and it doesn’t – I hope I am inspiring my own girls to go out and be them in a world that will hopefully be a lot closer to gender bias disappearing.


Emma’s observations at small business events, increasingly dominated by women, underscore a broader societal shift towards female entrepreneurship which is overall encouraging. 


Sarah Randall reflects on her ascent within Cottons, noting the pivotal role mentorship and opportunity have played in her career.  


I did an accountancy module in the first year of my university degree and really enjoyed it. I considered switching courses but stuck with Business Studies as that included a year in industry, which I then used to test whether or not accountancy would be a good fit for me. The first 6 months were difficult; I was used to managing teams in retail, but couldn’t do anything without help in accountancy! Then something clicked for me and I realised what an opportunity I had been given. Cottons continued to support me, asked me to stay on part-time whilst finishing my degree, then I went straight into a training contract with them. As the firm has grown, many amazing women have been promoted at all levels and are thriving. In this industry, which was once male-dominated, gender no longer matters at all; if you have the ability then there is no limit to what can be achieved.


I was very lucky to have had a mentor guiding me from the start. Nick Warne was the Managing Partner then and he took a chance hiring a placement student when a trainee position opened, and has continued to support me throughout my career to date. Along with the other Partners, we have always spoken very openly about my career goals and what I needed to work on to reach them, which has been invaluable in helping me reach Partnership. For me, one pivotal moment was many years back at an office-opening party, where my very shy younger-self hid in the corner throughout … after which the Partners explained that accountancy was about people. They told me I had the potential for a great career but if I wanted that for myself, I needed to come out of my shell and basically get out of my own way! (Great advice which I have passed on to many others since!)


My own experiences have shaped the way I support the team around me. Having spent many years training new accountants, and now supporting a larger team at different stages in their careers, I have high expectations of those around me and want to see them succeed. That means having the open conversations to help them get to where they want to be, just as I was able to do with my managers.


To aspiring female accountants I would simply say – if you have the ability and are willing to put in the work, there is no glass ceiling in our industry, so go for it! My own experience in this profession is people being hired and promoted based on ability; gender is irrelevant and opportunities are open to anyone willing to work for them.  


Sarah Kite shares her spontaneous entry into accounting, driven by familial advice and a mentor who believed in her potential.  


I sort of fell into accounting by accident, when deciding on which A levels to take, needing one more, my Mum suggested accountancy as they were, at the time, running their own business and this would be a useful skill. Well, that was it I was hooked and everything else took a back seat, I knew this was what I wanted to do. When first studying my AAT (after A levels), I was not working in the industry and this made progress difficult. My first job in accountancy was as an accounts assistant for a property management company, here I met my first mentor. She taught me all the basics, but inspired me to reach for the stars and I am forever grateful to her. She often told me she knew I would go far, ‘a natural’.   


Sarah describes her journey to becoming a partner at the firm and reflects on the pivotal moments:  


It’s a bumpy road full of tough decisions, especially for women, trying to balance work and family. I have been fortunate to have a supportive husband and 3 beautiful children and the work/life balance is a tough one to manage. Obviously, it goes without saying, you need to be an amazing at your job, but loyalty pays in dividends. Like others there have been moments where I wanted a change, but the decision to stay and help grow this practice, supporting staff and management is ultimately why I am in this position today.   


She also talks about the power of mentorship and building a strong community around you: 


Over the years I have gained a network of men & women who support me, both in business and personal matters and get me through the challenging times. Building a network of these people is so important for improving your stature and consequently helping move along your career 


Despite a high number of female graduates entering the accounting profession in the UK, women remain underrepresented in senior roles. We asked Sarah to tell us what advice she’d give to young women entering the accounting profession today? 


‘Who runs the world? Girls’. We all know this line, but in reality, it can be difficult for women to get ahead, especially whilst taking breaks for children. My mentor at Cottons has always been an advocate for me and without him I would not be where I am today. I believe a good working relationship is hard to come by and if you find it you should hold on tight. 

I am proof that women are, in some cases, being given these opportunities and now being in these roles it is our responsibility to clear the path for other young women to follow in our footsteps. 


Aneta Sheridan recounts her move from Poland to the UK, driven by ambition and a relentless pursuit of her goals.  


I have always enjoyed working with numbers. When I was young (a long time ago back in Poland), I had aspirations of becoming an English and maths teacher. However, I ended up pursuing a career as an accountant in the UK! The transition from teaching to accounting may seem surprising, but life often takes unexpected turns.


When I received an offer from the University of Northampton, I was initially shocked, as I was uncertain about passing an English test. However, I decided to take the opportunity. Upon enrolment, I was asked to choose a course. Accounting and finance appealed to me more than economics, so I decided to pursue that path. Despite the initial challenges, I found joy in the subject, even though it required hard work. Given that it was only my second year in the UK, I relied heavily on Polish-English and English-English dictionaries for studying. However, I persevered because once I start something and enjoy it, I stick with it. My mum instilled in me the value of never giving up and picking myself up when I fall.


Aneta’s path to becoming a Partner at Cottons, marked by determination and resilience, highlights the firm’s commitment to always promoting the best: 


It was a hard and long journey, but it was worth it. I qualified by exams very quickly (within 18 months of starting my training contract). I had nine ACCA exemptions from university. When I had my first child, I was faced with a difficult decision – come back part-time or full-time? I knew that if I came back part-time, it would be challenging for me to progress, and it might stall my career. As I am quite driven, I told myself that I can have both a successful career and a happy family. I have struggled with work-life balance, and sometimes I still do, but I am proud of what I have achieved.


I did have a wobble about 3-4 years ago when I had another job offer on the table and I was not sure what to do. So I turned to my manager Lisa Malone for advice. She said that it might be a bad move at this stage of my career and that I should think carefully and consider the pros and cons of moving. So I decided to stay. I am glad that I did.


My advice for younger women? Never give up, work hard, and don’t let anyone convince you that you cannot do it. You can have a happy family and a successful career.


I would like to see more women on the board of directors and in leadership roles. Yes, we do talk a lot, but we can get the job done. There should be equal pay for men and women doing the same job. Women should not be discriminated against or overlooked because they want or have children. Yes, we do get distracted and tired, but we can multitask. 


A unified vision for the future 


The narratives of Emma Reid, Sarah Randall, Sarah Kite and Aneta Sheridan are not standalone successes but collective testaments to our attitude towards our staff and the culture the firm promotes – one of ‘passion and hard work always pays off,’ and we value this ethos from every member of our company. As we celebrate International Women’s Day, we are reminded of the progress we have made and the work that remains. 


The recent appointments of three new female partners at the firm have been hugely beneficial. They have been deeply involved in the firm’s operations in the past, recognising their hard work. However, we also appreciate the new ideas and perspectives they will bring to the boardroom. 


Some of the issues faced by women are societal and it’s crucial that we, as a profession, do everything we can to educate our colleagues who may not face the same challenges. 


While the work-life balance is aided by the rise in remote and hybrid working, we must not become complacent. For instance, the balancing act may lead to women working more unsocial hours, which is not always sustainable. It could also result in women being excluded from decision-making processes due to a lack of office presence. 


Overall, there is always more that the profession can do to level the playing field. Accountancy firms must recognise that everyone, not just women, has very different personal needs and desires. They should listen to those individual voices and accommodate them to the greatest extent possible. 


At Cottons Group, we believe in the power of diversity to enrich our profession and shape a more equitable world. Together, we are paving the way for future generations of women in accounting, committed to transforming the landscape of opportunity and equality for all. 


Ready to connect?

If you’re curious about how we can help you, please reach out: our team is very keen to hear from you.

Xero Platinum partner logo
ICAEW logo
ACCA logo
Quickbooks logo