THE director of CBI Scotland has called for “open and honest” discussion around gender diversity in the workplace after a new report revealed that women working in finance and accounting roles take longer than their male counterparts to reach executive level.

Tracy Black said that research commissioned by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) made for “difficult if predictable reading for talented women looking to progress in the world of finance”.

“If we want to deliver positive change in gender diversity, we need to speak honestly and openly about the existence of barriers to women progressing in the workplace and about the need to overcome them,” Ms Black said.

ACCA’s report – “The slow path to the top: the careers of women in finance and accounting” – compares the career trajectories of men and women in finance and accounting. It revealed that women took on average seven years longer to progress to the next tier as they “battle with a two-tournament gender system throughout their careers”.

The research, conducted by King’s College London and the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC), found that while the careers of men and women in the sector initially progressed at the same pace, women found their career trajectory slowing down in middle management “due primarily to limited peer sponsorship and a lack of high-profile projects or opportunities in comparison to men”.

Ms Black said that ACCA and its partners had made a “welcome and insightful contribution” to the debate about how to ensure better female representation across business at all levels, from entry-level positions to management, senior management and leadership roles.

Describing mentoring as a “perfect example of what we can do to help”, she said: “It’s a hugely powerful tool that makes it easier to overcome barriers, access networks and challenge negative cultures. That’s why we’re delighted to have joined with ScottishPower and other leading companies to help develop and encourage the next generation of female business leaders in Scotland.

“While it is obviously the right thing to do, there is also a solid business case for taking action,” Ms Black continued. “We know that firms with more diverse boards perform better and companies with the highest levels of gender diversity are 15 per cent more likely to outperform their rivals.”

Maggie McGhee, director of professional insights at ACCA, said that while it is broadly acknowledged that the financial services sector has a long way to go to reach gender parity, with women occupying less than 20 per cent of senior roles, this report highlights the factors behind the seven-year period that women are most likely to encounter when they reach middle management.

Ms McGhee said: “In particular, the research takes a closer look at the ‘confidence myth’, whereby the hindered progression of female employees is attributed to a lack of confidence or appetite to ‘lean in’, which then rationalises or hides the inequalities or unfair dynamics in the workplace which are actually at fault.”

The research concludes that for many women, this deceleration of career progression is due to them receiving fewer “strategic, stretch assignments and opportunities than their male colleagues”. It also claims that they lack the “protection from workplace politics or exposure to higher-level executives that male employees are more likely to receive from a more senior sponsor or mentor”.

“We need this kind of research into the root causes behind workplace inequality to ensure that organisations are aware of any underlying impediments,” Ms McGhee said. “It is every organisation’s responsibility to review the way they support and open up opportunities to women and other minorities.

“The finance and accounting profession is committed to improving the workplace experience and progression prospects for women. We need to work together on a true, concerted effort to acknowledge longstanding embedded issues, rectify them, and bring about change.”