The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales (ICAEW) is the professional body that supports a global network of over 145,000 members, who, in turn, help private and public organisations of all sizes and in all sectors succeed, while collaborating with governments, regulators and business leaders around the world. ICAEW President Hilary Lindsay was in Cyprus recently to attend a graduation ceremony for some 150 students who are due to join the Institute. She spoke exclusively to Gold about the objectives of her 12-month presidency.
When Hilary Lindsay qualified as a Chartered Accountant in the 1970s, fewer than 2% of her colleagues were women. That figure is now around 30% and last year she became the second female President of ICAEW. Things have clearly changed over the past 40 years so does Lindsay feel that she is something of a pioneer in her male-dominated profession or does she think that there ought to have been plenty of other women in the post before her?
“I certainly think that there should have been plenty of others before me,” she tells me during her recent visit to Cyprus. “I actually tried to deny the fact of being only the second woman President to myself,” she goes on, “but then I saw that it was something that everyone noticed! So I’m actually embracing it and using it to emphasise that 30% of our membership and over 40% of our students are women. If they can see somebody like them in a position of ultimate influence in the Institute, that can’t be a bad thing.”
Hilary Lindsay decided to try accountancy after graduating with a degree in Statistics. “I was good with figures and I liked people and I didn’t fancy teaching at that point,” she recalls, “so I decided to become a Chartered Accountant without really knowing what it entailed and it proved to be a very good choice. Interestingly, towards the end of my career, I have ended up doing a lot of teaching for the Open University so it seems that we can’t run away from some things! They are destined to happen!”
She tells the story of how a male colleague once asked her what it was like to be a female accountant. “I told him I couldn’t answer that! All I could tell him what was what it was like to be a Chartered Accountant, which he already knew.” Despite that original 2% representation, Lindsay says that accountancy firms tended to have quite a good gender mix, though at different levels, and so she never felt that she was the only woman in an organisation. “If I went on courses or to Continuous Professional Development (CPD) events, I was often the only woman there but I have to say that I have never felt any gender-based discrimination at any stage of my career.”
In her first address as President last year, she said that the profession needed to respond to the growing trends in the sector, including an increase in compliance work being taken on by technology. How have the members of the Institute responded to such messages?
“They’ve been responding with understanding and enthusiasm,” Lindsay states firmly. “All our members want to add value for their clients or the businesses that they work for, so if they are able to do more higher-level work because technology is taking away some of the routine work, they can make a big difference, making sure, for example, that they are helping clients develop their business or look at new ways of thinking about their business.”
The issue of the future of audit is one that has been under discussion for a long time. Should auditors be required to go further than simply checking the numbers?
“As an Institute we’ve done a lot of work around what we see as the future of audit – we have a project with this title – and we’re trying hard to work out what extra skills we can bring to the audit,” she explains. “It’s no longer about just looking at all the things that we need to check but about making sure we are asking the right questions about a business, looking at how it should be approaching the future and providing useful advice.”
Hilary Lindsay is already halfway through her one-year presidential term. I ask her if there are things that were on her agenda seven months ago that she has already achieved. It’s still a work in progress, she says, but she is delighted that the Institute has drawn up its strategy for the next several years. “My main role as President is to make sure we’re implementing the strategy,” she says, adding that she is especially happy with the discussions that she has had in the UK and around the world on topics such as flexible working.
“People have traditionally thought of flexible working as something that women, in particular, appreciate because it helps them balance career and family better,” she notes, “but I’m trying to promote flexible working for everybody as a positive choice. If you are at work and wishing you were somewhere else, you’re not going to be giving your best, so it’s a question of helping everybody do their job in the best way possible.”
Another thing that she is very pleased about is the fact that she has been able to highlight how many ICAEW members work in academia. “As well as being the second woman to be President of the Institute, I am also the first academic to be appointed to the post. We’re looking at what more we can do to support those academics and so far I’m pleased with what we’ve done.”
One of the main issues for ICAEW concerns what it is doing outside the UK and this is where Cyprus takes on a significant role.
“We’ve been here for 20 years and we’ve got over 2,000 members as well as 700-800 students,” Lindsay enthuses, “so what’s really exciting for us is that we’re developing really influential groups of members in other parts of the world. I came here for the graduation ceremony, celebrating the success of about 150 students in Cyprus who have passed their exams and have the potential to become or already are ICAEW members. That’s exciting! We have people in Cyprus that are global prizewinners so there is a really successful training environment here. We have a very viable model for the training of future chartered accountants in Cyprus.”
In Cyprus, it appears that the profession is still attracting plenty of young people. Is that the case in the UK?
“Yes, absolutely,” Lindsay affirms. “And as ICAEW we are making sure that we understand what sorts of careers those new members would like to have and what particular points about the profession most appeal to them. The UN sustainable development goals, for example, absolutely resonate with them because they can see that they can make a difference not only to a particular society but to the whole planet. We see our members as the people that can help measure and work towards these challenging goals.”
Last year, when the ICAEW Council was drawing up its strategy, it tried to envision what things will be like in 25 years’ time. “We decided that, although technology will have completely transformed how we do our jobs, ethics will still matter and people will still matter,” Lindsay says. “We will still need people with those skills who can understand, interpret and add value and insight to a given situation. We have identified three brand values that we’re very much pushing: providing insight, showing initiative and having integrity.”
The ICAEW President describes the Institute’s younger members as “very ambitious, wanting variety in what they do, and with very high ethical standards” and so it is critical that the profession feels relevant to them. “It needs to resonate with their values and ethics and their desire to achieve. Anyone starting out now belongs to a profession that gives them a home in which their values can flourish and be supported. It’s a fantastic starting point for any career.”
By John Vickers, Gold News