Every step towards greater equality will benefit businesses, clients and solicitors alike. In the UK, women now outnumber men practising as solicitors, according to figures from the Law Society.
But the picture is not as bright when considering the number of women partners in the Americas.
In 2005, the percentage of women partners working in law and accountancy firms in the Americas was 12.8%. At that time, this was significantly less than in American corporations at around 18% and US Congress at 21%. In 2017, the percentage of women partners had only grown to around 18%. It's also worth noting that of the S&P 500 companies, women held only 5% of CEO positions as of January 2018.
Symbolising the significance of being a woman partner at a firm in 2005, one panellist tells her story. "When I made partner in 2005, my best friend sent me a bracelet with a key as my new proverbial 'key to the men's room', which I have worn for you all today," she says. "All joking aside, all of the firms have made great progress in the area since then but we are nowhere near a healthy balance of women in leadership. It's no secret, a balanced leadership group is simply good business."
It's becoming more common for men to realise that working with a women offers some great opportunities for them, especially when it comes to their skillsets, say panellists.
However, for many women who are seen as experts in their field of work, or who lead a team of tax professionals, the image they want to project is split into two aspects.
"The image you want to create of yourself to others is of a beautiful swan gliding across the water, while you are frantically paddling underneath to keep it altogether and stay afloat," says one tax director.
"It's also important that a team paddles together too. Outwardly, a team should also look like a graceful swan," adds another.
This comparison between tax professionals' hectic work lives and the gliding swan is much more than just a reflection of a person or their team. It's about presenting oneself as someone who is in control and capable of doing the job.
"Ideally, you don't want to show yourself as someone who is paddling frantically because this can sometimes erode the trust of others in you to do the job – but that also doesn't mean you don't show your vulnerabilities," says the tax director who shared the analogy, which was repeated throughout the day.
"You just need to show your confidence to your team and all stakeholders. It's also important to learn from your mistakes," she adds.
All leaders have numerous internal and external stakeholders and using an appropriate leadership style is key to success.
One tax director says her mantra is to make tax user-friendly and solutions-driven. This sometimes involves mentoring and coaching people across the company. Training other people in the organisation on certain tax rules or basic tax matters can empower others to deal with certain matters. It helps everyone and develops mutual respect, say panellists from Travers Smith, Intermediate Capital Group, Lloyds Development Capital and ConvaTec.
While tax expertise is important, developing a team of subject matter experts ensures leaders can focus on leading. Panellists also extolled the benefits of ensuring teams are diverse in terms of their abilities and expertise areas.
"Naturally, the more diverse your team is, the better success your team is likely to have. It could give you a competitive advantage," says one panellist.
"As a leader you're the person that needs to use judgment, develop a strategy, have the vision and understand commercial relevance. As a manager, you have a multitude of issues to deal with," adds another panellist. "It's also important to recognise good work. You should advocate for the people who are doing a great job – this is a really important aspect of leadership."
Key aspects of the modern tax director role, say panellists, are to:
- Sell the vision;
- Delegate well;
- Innovate often;
- Empower others;
- Overcome resistance (part of this is also being a good negotiator);
- Build strategic relationships;
- Focus on the customers; and
- Listen very actively.
But, it's not always possible to gain these skills alone.
Mentoring schemes are growing in popularity and can offer some welcome guidance.
There are good and bad mentor scenarios, however. Formal mentorships, where a mentee is assigned to a mentor, can be good, but only if there is good chemistry between the two individuals. Informal mentoring relationships can also be helpful, and can be struck with individuals outside of the workplace.
"These informal arrangements can allow you to be more open, honest and relaxed in the situation. This can often mean a relationship that has more chemistry," says one tax director who prefers this option.
Nevertheless, while a leader may have strategic responsibilities and receive guidance on their development, it's also important for all individuals to be able to grow within the business and bring growth to it too. That may be, for example, from new ideas.
One tax director says she relies on her network and talking to people to come up with ideas. Other tax directors agree that it's not possible to survive without a network. The broader the network, the more advantageous that is to progression, they say, advising that it's good to take some time out of the week or month to review and nurture these professional networks.
"See networking as something you do as part of your day job – as opposed to something you do after 5pm," says one tax director. "If you see networking as part of your job, you will be able to achieve this."
Building and using your network
A tax director's network is not just about what it means to them, but what they mean to their network.
"Having a good network that you are able to nurture and maintain can lead to job opportunities you could not have expected via the traditional routes of career progression and recruitment," says one speaker among the panel of women from Aptis Global, Co-op, Vectura and Sophos Group.
In one example, a tax director tells the audience about how her network helped her when she faced an unexpected situation.
"I had informed my manager of becoming pregnant, and I received an unexpected response," she began.
"My manager said he was shocked that a female talent like myself would ruin her career by having a child. I quit the job while pregnant with no plans for the next step," she says. "However, while pregnant, a client approached me to offer me a job when I was ready to come back to work. This opportunity allowed me to develop a career in a niche area of tax and work my way up the career ladder."
"All my job opportunities have come from my network. I have never had to apply for a job in the traditional way over my 35-year career," she continues.
"I have had so many jobs because people knew who I was, where I was and what I was good at", she adds.
"It's all about the network," she advises delegates. "You need to build your network, talk to your peer group, and be very careful to build your network across continents with all of your stakeholders. When thinking about the next job, it's important to think about how you can put yourself in the position that makes you the most obvious candidate when that type of role comes up. Let people know what interests you. Always play to your strengths."
Several tax directors also talked up the importance of digital networking and maintaining a coherent online presence.
What would you tell your younger self?
Most tax directors have a global aspect to their role at the very least. As the world becomes smaller, many individuals find themselves working with people from different countries. When working across countries and time zones, the challenge of developing a team and establishing trusting relationships can be tough.
Trust is crucial in a global and transparent community. When those face-to-face conversations don't happen easily, it can be very difficult to build that cohesive group and team, speakers note. They suggest that building clear goals and objectives, sharing ideas and plans and continuously sharing progress can help.
A team that brings together native and non-native speakers is another challenge tax leaders often face. Getting to know each other across a global, and often virtual, team can be tricky too.
Taking the time to do some research, speak to people, and understand the cultural differences to determine how a person may perceive a piece of communication is an important step in this process, says one tax director. "You have to invest time to understand this."
In conclusion, the speakers believe that empowerment firstly comes from within. When a women believes in her strengths to do her job, she will naturally grow her skills and empower others along the way.
An account of the technical discussions at the Leading Women in Tax forum will follow in the October issue of International Tax Review.