Is the tax industry a good place for a woman to build a career?
8th March 2018
This article was originally produced for Taxation on the 7 March 2018.
- Take ownership of your career.
- Take advantage of a mentor in or outside your firm.
- Do not let others hold you back – believe in yourself.
- Be prepared to accept help and help those who follow you.
It is 460 years since John Knox, the Scottish Protestant reformer, wrote his pamphlet The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regimen of Women in which he railed against rule by female monarchs, in particular Roman Catholic ones – Mary Tudor and Mary Stuart. In the years since, women have fought to win the right to vote, be allowed to continue to work after marriage, be paid the same as men for doing the same job and be afforded the same opportunities. Yet, even in 2018, equality is not a given.
How, then, is it in the world of tax?
Own your career
Helen Adams, principal at BDO LLP
Working in tax is an interesting and challenging career. I thrive on no two days being the same and am inspired by the smiles and thanks of clients whose tax disputes we resolve so that they can get on with their businesses and their lives. The support and guidance I receive from my colleagues is instrumental in my career. I enjoy assisting colleagues with their development, solving problems and technical issues too.
I encourage anyone with an interest in tax to find their niche and grow their careers with these tips:
- After qualifying, reflect and decide what you want to do: industry or practice? In a major city or do you want to be more geographically mobile? In which part of tax do you want to specialise?
- It’s your career: take ownership. Review your firm’s framework describing what is expected of the grade above when you set your own objectives. If you are unclear on what you need to do to be promoted, ask.
- Focus on what you enjoy and are good at while keeping up with technological and technical developments. Embrace new experiences and opportunities – you may surprise yourself.
- Recognise that you cannot do everything. Not only is delegation essential but so is consulting senior colleagues and developing junior colleagues’ skills.
- Build your profile in your firm and industry with social media, journal articles and, if you can, getting involved with your professional institute.
- Don’t forget that understanding the facts comes before doing the technical piece. Also, never assume!
- If you have a bad day, find something positive in it, learn from the difficulties and move on.
- Don’t forget work-life balance. Everyone finds their own way, for example through flexible working. This is essential for long-term health, sanity and happiness.
Good luck with your career in tax.
Julie Cameron, independent practitioner specialising in private client tax, compliance and administration
I didn’t mean to have a career in tax. Yet one bright July day, for reasons I won’t bore you with, I found myself working for the Inland Revenue. I had not thought at all about the job I was taking on. I knew nothing of office life and less than that about tax itself. Yet I discovered a fascination for tax which I still have, some 40-something years later. I can’t be bored by tax! The landscape of the legislation moves continually and its intricacies are intellectually challenging.
My workplace was male-dominated (not to mention full of tobacco smoke) and a career break for family was the norm for a woman. I knew very soon that I wanted a career in tax but it grew around these social expectations rather than being planned. For example, I always stayed close to home in choosing the next role. Starting out now, whether with HMRC or in accounting, I would have more work-oriented targets and be a lot braver in reaching up to snatch those goals.
I also realised that everything will not always go to plan. There have been pivotal points, for better or for worse. But it also becomes clear that when I have worked to my full potential the team around me has been the most supportive and the managers most inspirational. Their vision has matched my own and has allowed me opportunities to ‘spread my wings’.
A career in tax is stimulating, challenging and rewarding. Seek out your mentors to maximise your success. Choose roles carefully, recognising the time to move on. Be prepared for the ebb and flow of the tax code as government focus waxes and wanes. The adage about the certainty of death and taxes is true, so tax professionals will always be in demand.
Anne Fairpo, barrister at Temple Tax Chambers
When asked ‘how and why I would encourage women who are building their career in the industry’ I found myself stopped in my tracks. In retrospect, my career – so far – has obviously ‘built’ but it has never been a particularly conscious decision.
The only things I have deliberately planned were qualifying as chartered tax adviser (although long enough ago that plan was to qualify as ATII) and then the move from being a solicitor to a barrister, although even that didn’t happen when I thought it might (it was earlier, in case you were wondering). My role as a CIOT president was not so much a long-term plan as an awareness that it had been far too long since the previous female one (Penny Hamilton), and the feeling that something should be done about that. I would be grateful if someone reading this became the next female president soon, so that it is not too long again!
So my career constructed itself, mostly, but, that is probably the best route (for me, at least). It happened through following my interests, particularly technology and similar intellectual property-related things, such as photography, into tax law and a tendency to think ‘hmm, looks interesting, let’s see what happens’ when something comes along that catches my attention. Haphazard, perhaps but I prefer to think of it as being flexible.
The opportunities are all there: tax law is intertwined withall areas of law – which is why I chose it – and it touches on everything in business and in life. The hard part is narrowing the focus – if you choose to.
Importance of a mentor
Fiona Fernie, partner, tax risk and dispute resolution at Blick Rothenberg
The world of professional services has changed dramatically since I joined it – more years ago than I care to remember. When I began as a trainee chartered accountant in what is now a big four firm, I had to ask permission in advance to wear trousers to work! Fortunately, attitudes have moved on…
I have been fortunate to have received considerable support and mentoring during my career – as it happens, most of it from men. I will never forget coming back from maternity leave (on a three-day week initially) to the ominous words ‘the only thing X (the partner) hates more than a female member of staff is a part-time female member of staff’. However, once he recognised that I was fully committed to working hard and doing my utmost for every client, the same partner was kindness itself and promoted me within nine months of my return.
My current mentor relationship has survived two job moves and is still as close as it ever was. It has been vital to my development because somebody whom I admired and respected hugely made it clear that he believed in me and helped me to reach my potential, for which I remain immensely grateful.
My advice to young women would be to determine their goals early on, believe in themselves and what they have to offer, find someone influential who will mentor and help them, and then work with dedication towards achieving that goal. In addition, in any client situation, I believe that advisers who can imagine themselves in their clients’ shoes will be able to provide a far better quality service than those who see it as just another task.
Judith Freeman, Pinsent Masons professor of taxation law, Worcester College Oxford
Today we have many examples of leading tax women in business and practice. When I started in tax practice I was not so lucky. In academia there were impressive women at the London School of Economics when I joined in 1982, but none working on taxation. However, I was fortunate to have some excellent informal mentors. The LSE economist, Professor Alan Prest, the lawyer John Avery Jones, who was a visiting professor, and accountant David Oliver gave me advice and involved me in the British Tax Review, of which I am still an editor. Professor John Tiley, both through his wonderful book and in person, was a real inspiration and got me involved in the European Association of Tax Law Professors. And Malcolm Gammie invited me to join the tax law review committee at the Institute for Fiscal Studies. I was delighted to be offered these opportunities and think this shows that small actions to include women in activities make a big difference.
When I was younger, I hardly noticed that I was often the only woman in the room or on a panel because that was such a frequent occurrence. However, I was amazed when I was told that I was the first female statutory professor of law at Oxford University – in 2001! Most of the time I was too busy to be cross and just assumed things would soon improve, but now it makes me angrier when women are sidelined. Things are taking too long to change despite the many excellent women working on tax issues now. I was involved in early discussions about setting up Women in Tax and am delighted that younger women have turned that into such a success. Having female colleagues is still a welcome luxury for me, but I look forward to the time when it is absolutely standard.
Series of races
Melissa Geiger, head of international tax at KPMG in the UK
My career in tax is the result of a happy accident. I intended to be a geography teacher, but I joined KPMG in Bristol as a graduate after realising two things. First, there was a £14,000 starting salary up for grabs, which was a lot back then! Second, it was the only firm where I was interviewed by someone I could imagine wanting to become – a partner called Sue Bonney, a clever, kind and successful woman. Today, there are many more women like Sue at KPMG and in business generally, but at the time she was something of a trailblazer.
I dislike lumping women into one category where we all share the same traits, but tax is a good fit for many of us. The qualities we are credited with having a natural talent for are a necessary part of working in tax.
It is primarily brain work. I find applying technical expertise and sound judgement to evaluate, anticipate and respond to issues and opportunities with insight and precision fascinating and challenging in equal measure.
Tax is also a communication business. In my experience, the ability to explain one’s thinking is often as important as the strength of the analysis itself. A great idea that nobody understands is never put into action. Finally, tax is a brilliant place for anyone with ambition – especially now that tax policy is at the centre of a vibrant public debate about the kind of society we want to build.
My tip for achieving professional and personal success? Do not treat your career as a marathon, but as a series of races. There will be key pivotal moments – first rejection for a job, first big success, first child. How we respond to those moments can shape the future. And that is where listening to the experiences and advice of others (men as well as women) who have gone before us or are running alongside us is so valuable.
Susan Gompels, SI Gompels & Co
A career as a chartered accountant – in general practice and tax in particular – why? In short, because I think little else could have given me opportunity for such worthwhile and personally rewarding work as trusted adviser and confidante across such a vast range of businesses, groups, and fascinating people.
I trained in the City of London office of a national firm, and qualified in 1970 as one of 70 women out of a total year’s cohort of 3,000. Combining emerging computerisation with my accountancy training appealed enormously but I soon learned that, despite initial excitement and success at interviews, this was not to be. The insuperable obstacle was that I was recently married and with plans for a family. The City career system was then totally unable to cope with this combination.
Small general practice was not on the ‘menu’ as onward career option – so I ploughed my own furrow and have enjoyed this hugely. Working first with practising firms and then setting up my own practice, I have been able to select the client base, mould the direction (largely medical consultants) and have been privileged to have a platform to provide a very personal, tailored service to clients.
Technical knowledge and competences we can acquire. Professional care is the added value that we are then privileged to offer. Above all, the most satisfying challenge has been the winning and retaining of client trust and confidence. For my medical consultants I have sought not just to assist with routine accounts and tax compliance, but have provided what one doctor calls her ‘financial psychotherapy’ – a chance to set goals, review plans and seize opportunities.
Financial rewards are the result of successful professional practice – but never the objective. Pious perhaps – but often so true.
Final thought: my son (when aged three and a half) once innocently enquired whether there were any ‘boy accountants’.
Anbreen Khan, partner indirect tax dispute resolution at Deloitte LLP
It is often said that tax and law go well together. After all, tax is interpretation of statutes – or is it? As an aspiring young lawyer at university, tax had not featured in my world at all. I landed my first break with Deloitte as a graduate in the indirect tax legal team doing VAT dispute resolution work. More than 20 years later I have never looked back. It is a world that touches almost every facet of business – the private and public sectors; the economy; policy; technology and artificial intelligence; and, most importantly, people.
I also provide advisory and consultancy work to clients and projects. Building a team of bright and diverse talent is key to success. I have been lucky to have always worked with incredibly talented colleagues, and together we have achieved great success for our tax practice. Whether it has been the excitement of taking landmark cases both in the UK or EU courts or working with teams and clients while advising on complex issues, a career in tax is both rewarding and fun.
I am often asked what the secret to a successful career is. It is down to hard work, determination and commitment, being yourself, and learning to adapt your style to suit the assignment. It is important to enjoy what you do to stay motivated, and tax is a subject so diverse that it allows for an enjoyable and wide ranging career.
More women are joining the tax profession. Building a diverse team can bring different skills and these complement and bring a diversity of perspectives to teamwork.
In my experience, women are more than happy to support other women considering career options, so seek advice. Getting the view from the ground is valuable.
As a British Muslim woman I am passionate about supporting women from all backgrounds to pursue a career that allows them to express their own diversity. Tax remains a dynamic and exciting career which I would encourage people to consider.
Don’t wait to be asked
Francesca Lagerberg, global leader, tax and network capabilities, at Grant Thornton
For the past 14 years, Grant Thornton has been undertaking research about the number of women in leadership roles. The survey covers more than 2,500 businesses around the world.
Each year I look with sadness at the outcome. On the positive side, if you were to open a door on a senior leadership meeting today you would probably find a woman. Globally, 75% of such teams now have at least one woman represented. However, it’s unlikely you would find more than one.
The glacial shift of women breaking through into senior leadership roles is a frustration and raises many issues about whether the multiple initiatives, encouragement and programmes are really delivering the behavioural change needed to make a difference. Real change comes when the leadership of an organisation both believe in and encourage diversity.
I have been working in tax for more than 25 years (I would like to pretend I started young!). Tax has often been the role model for encouraging women both in terms of equality in early intake but also in a working environment that can sometimes be more agile and flexible. I have worked with and for some inspirational people who always empowered me to be able to work flexible hours when I had young children and offered me opportunities to progress.
I would encourage those starting their careers to get involved. Read outside the day job. Look at institutes and work clubs to build a network beyond your office. Build a profile on social media. Get known for having something to say. Seek sponsorship from those whom you report to. Don’t wait to be asked to do things and build the future you deserve. And don’t forget to help those who follow you.
Say yes to every opportunity
Hui Ling McCarthy QC, 11 New Square
After a maths degree and a stint in banking, I was called to the Bar in 2005 and practise mainly in business and corporate tax, VAT and stamp duty land tax. I enjoy the intellectual rigour of tax and the exhilaration of a great day in court when everything comes together perfectly, so I couldn’t have chosen a better career. I love working closely with instructing advisers – the best results are born of great teamwork – and the fascinating range of clients: from multinationals and entrepreneurs, to sportspeople and others in the public eye, to pro bono clients for whom your help makes the most difference.
My parents are my inspiration. My father built from scratch a successful industrial department in a City firm of chartered surveyors. Sadly he died before my career took off, but so much of his business advice has been hugely influential. He also gave me a Chinese inscription which reads: ‘The man who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the woman who is doing it.’ I remind myself of this when facing tough professional challenges.
I was appointed Queen’s Counsel last month at the Palace of Westminster. The day was unforgettable and the icing on the cake was sharing it with my partner, Jonathan Bremner QC, who was appointed at the same time. Now it’s back to work and I am conscious that I am at the bottom of a new professional ladder.
To women wishing to progress in the profession, my advice is: hard work and preparation are the key to success. Say ‘yes’ to every opportunity – you never know where it will lead. Finally, never let others make you doubt yourself or hold you back. Believe in yourself 100%, trust your abilities and judgement and you will be unstoppable.
Experience is vital
Anita Monteith, technical lead and senior policy adviser,Tax Faculty
If you enjoy variety and shun the mundane, a career in tax is definitely one to recommend. Just the word ‘tax’ is a turn-off for many, but tax is about everything we do and everywhere we go so to dismiss it out of hand simply shows lack of imagination. I have worked full time, part time, freelance and as a volunteer, but never not at all.
I would encourage anyone starting out to gain as much experience as possible. Although I began in the tax department of a big firm, I soon moved into exam training. I found I loved communication in all its forms, lecturing, writing and broadcasting about tax on TV and radio, even if an audience of millions can be nerve-racking.
If you take a career break, tax will always have a gift for your comeback. A new tax, just announced which no one knows about or understands, offers the returner a level playing field.
Be inquisitive and volunteer. I volunteered with the Tax Faculty when it was first set up and was very fortunate to join its committee while Peter Wyman was chairman. His support and encouragement was invaluable as I was completely in awe of the rest of the committee who I felt spoke a different language from mine. I recommend finding a mentor to give you confidence and you will soon realise you know as much as the rest. Some people bluster, and it is more of a male thing, but do not be put off.
Take opportunities wherever they arise. A PAYE research project at a university taught me a lot about how good tax research should be approached, I was able to visit payroll departments across a wide variety of businesses which gave me contacts and understanding I have relied on many times since. And as treasurer for the Alzheimer’s Society I found that even large charities need to understand tax.
There is a lot of reading and learning in the early days, but much of that can be done through home study. Other than perhaps having to find the money for study materials, it is a career that anyone can enter. If you are able to secure a training contract, studying for the ICAEW and CIOT qualifications simultaneously is a fast-track route to getting both sets of exams out of the way early in your career.
Genevieve Moore, partner and head of corporate tax at Blick Rothenberg
Being a child of the 1980s I am fortunate to have had many strong female role models in business and politics. While I was growing up Anita Roddick, who founded the Body Shop, had to be a key female role model both as a businesswoman and environmental campaigner. People like her, Margaret Thatcher (love her or hate her) and even our queen have proved to young women that gender is not a barrier to success and, if you have the right attitude and approach, you can succeed.
I have been fortunate to work in environments where hard work, passion, enthusiasm and dedication have been rewarded, and it really hasn’t mattered whether I wore trousers or a dress to work. I have been supported and encouraged by male and female colleagues alike.
My advice to anyone starting their career is to be ambitious and work hard for what you want in life. In today’s modern world there really are no barriers to the boardroom, but if you don’t aim high you will never know what you can achieve.
I would also recommend that any aspiring businesswomen seek advice, mentoring and coaching from their female and male role models. I have benefited hugely from working with many inspiring and talented females, but it is the coaching and mentoring from our current (male) chief executive officer that has really enabled me to grow and strive to reach my full potential.
Tax and professional services are heavily populated by women leaders, not just in my firm but in many of the top accountancy firms. Women looking to pursue a career in professional services need only do a little research to see this is the case, and that should inspire them to aim for the top.
You can have it all
Dawn Register, partner at BDO LLP
‘Eerily professional’ – this was my first-ever piece of feedback as a tax trainee many moons ago. At the time I felt rather mortified by it. However, over the years I have grown to take it as an odd compliment. Now, as a tax partner in dispute resolution, I take great pride in being ‘professional’ (but not as eerie) in all my dealings with clients, referrers, HMRC and my colleagues.
In terms of career advice and tips, in common with most people I continue to learn so much every day and I am fortunate to work with some amazing tax professionals. The following has held me in good stead:
- Assume nothing. Working in tax investigations, I have learned to check everything and that there is no such thing as a silly question. Always ask and turn every stone until you are satisfied that you have the complete picture.
- Focus on understanding other people. As tax professionals we often get bogged down with the technical detail and understanding legislation. This is crucial of course. However, building rapport and understanding the underlying needs of other people is always a focus for me.
- Play to your strengths. This was an inspiring personal development book I read several years ago. The basic message was that we all have strengths and weaknesses. It is important to be honest and open in your career. Steer your career in the direction that will play to your strengths and minimise the impact of your weaknesses.
- Yes, you can ‘have it all’. At my firm we try to facilitate flexible working for anyone, male or female, so that we can balance work and our other interests. For me it means spending time with my young family while being a partner in the business. Don’t compromise on your dreams!
- Enjoy what you do but, if you don’t, initiate change. I am extremely fortunate to enjoy what I do and still feel a great sense of challenge, personal satisfaction, curiosity and endeavour in my daily work life. This is a real joy and something I hope others will experience for themselves.
Happy International Women’s Day to everyone in the tax community especially the fantastic women in the profession.