It's a scenario that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. An aspiring director of "Big Four" accountancy firm Deloitte was allowed to bring both her mother and young baby along to the "assessment centre" while on maternity leave. Throughout the two-day session, designed to assess whether she was a suitable person to have as a director, the candidate's mother was able to look after junior.

Even in the mid-1990s such an aspiring director or partner would have had to await their return from maternity leave before being able to subject themselves to the gruelling assessment process - meaning their chances of promotion could have been lessened.

But Isobel Sharp, president of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Scotland, and a partner at Deloitte, welcomes such initiatives. Indeed, she says that without this sort of flexible thinking about the differing needs of women, accountancy firms will struggle to redress the gender imbalance that appears to be worsening in their profession.

Sharp says: "We have to get across the message that having children is not in any way a disadvantage."

She cites recent research from Professor Elizabeth Gammie of Aberdeen Business School at Robert Gordon University. Conducted on behalf of ICAS, this research concluded there is still a "glass ceiling" in the accountancy profession, with women accounting for just 13% of ICAS partners in practice.

This means accountancy is severely lagging the law in the gender equality stakes. According to the Law Society of Scotland, 21.8% of the 3632 partners in private practice in Scottish law firms are women Sharp said in an ideal world, the proportion of partners in Big Four accountancy firms who are female should rise to 50% - reflecting society at large. However, they are a long way from reaching this goal, which Sharp says is a situation that none of the Big Four are happy about. "They would all love to see more female partners come through," said Sharp.

Currently just 10% of partners in Big Four accountancy firms in the UK are female, even though roughly half (48%) of those entering the profession are women.

At Deloitte just two (7%) of the 28 partners in Scotland are female. The figure for PriceWaterhouseCoopers is seven (18%) out of 39, while only two (9%) of Ernst & Young's 22 partners in Scotland are female. And 15% of KPMG's 40 people at "partner equivalent level" in Scotland are female. This compares to eight (13%) of Deloitte's 61 partners and directors in Scotland who are women.

Large independent firms seem to be even more male-dominated.

At Johnston Carmichael, Scotland's largest independent accountancy firm, just 5% of the 37 partners are women.

Most of the Big Four firms admit to being unhappy with the current gender imbalances and have set themselves targets of increasing the proportion of partners who are female to between 25% and 31% within the next couple years. However, if current trends continue, these targets are going to be elusive.

In fact, the latest figures suggest the upper echelon of the accountancy profession is in danger of becoming even more of a male preserve.

Accountancy magazine last week revealed that, despite efforts to attract and retain women in senior roles, only 14% of people who were made partners in the Big Four firms in 2007 were women, down from 21% last year.

The magazine revealed the proportion of the new partners at Ernst & Young who are female collapsed from 28% last year to 12% in 2007, while that at PwC dropped from 21% to 13%. Deloitte held firm at 16% in each of the years, while KPMG's female intake dipped from 17% to 16%.

Chris Quick, Accountancy's editor-in-chief, said: "One of the major problems is that women tend to start families at around the same time they're thinking of partnership. If firms want women at the top, they'll have to show them it's possible to combine the two."

Big Four insiders last week sought to dismiss the figures as a blip. But Sharp believes the firms must make a more concerted effort to reinvent themselves as a more family-friendly place to work if women are not going to find senior roles in practice undesirable or unviable.

She said: "I've been in this profession for 25 years but it's changing very slowly. I've tried not to make a fuss about that. However, the changes we have seen have really only been at the margins. As a profession we need to ensure this changes more quickly."

KPMG managing partner Craig Anderson said that his firm is making some headway in terms of redressing the balance. Three (50%) of the six people appointed or promoted to partner level at KPMG Scotland during 2007 were women. He said: "We have a number of initiatives in place for attracting and retaining talented women in the workplace, including Maternity Matters, which is aimed at supporting women and families. We also have an industry-leading flexible working scheme which last year approved more than 90% of requests from staff."

Rhona Irving, head of tax at PwC Scotland, said: "At PwC we aim to have a diverse mix of the most talented people, including women, and give them the support they need to fulfil their potential. We believe our flexible working practices go a long way to achieving that for all of our people."

Even though only 8% of its Scottish partners are women, 40% of those appointed in 2007 are women.

Sandy Manson, chief executive of Johnston Carmichael, said one of his strategic priorities is to boost the number of female partners but he has not set specific quotas. He predicts the situation will change because of " large numbers of highly able female staff at Johnston Carmichael, not because we set any arbitrary targets."

He believes the firm's recent introduction of flexi-time has been "of huge benefit to all of us irrespective of gender or of our family commitments."

In her recent report, Professor Gammie argued that the culture of the accountancy profession conspired against women. She said: "Professional accountancy firms have, in general, maintained their macho' culture in respect of long hours. Without some cultural change to the working environment that could be of benefit to all employees, it is difficult to envisage a situation whereby women accountants will progress to partnership in the same proportion as male colleagues.

"Nearly a third of women who responded to the questionnaire felt that they had experienced workplace discrimination Long hours were symptomatic and, whilst flexible working was available, this was perceived to be damaging to career progression. A lack of female role models and mentoring exacerbated the situation. There was also an issue with women's self- perception.

"Behaviour ranging from insensitive to that of a more serious nature, deemed to be sexual harassment, had also been encountered by the majority of female partners."

Hywel Ball, managing partner for Ernst & Young Scotland, said E&Y has the highest percentage of female partners among Big Four firms at a UK level and added it is the only one with two women on its leadership team.