This article was first published in the July/August 2017 international edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Despite all the hyperbole about diversity and inclusion, recent stats show that close to 90% of Fortune 500 company CFOs are still men, and that this ratio hasn’t changed over a number of years. 

Similarly, I’m sure it’s no epiphany to learn that accountancy firms are still heavily weighted towards male principals, although the stats aren’t quite as skewed as in the big corporates. The most recent data from the UK’s Financial Reporting Council shows that only 17% of PwC principals are female, 15% at Deloitte and EY, 13% at KPMG and just 12% at BDO.  

In the US, women have fared somewhat better than their British colleagues, with 23% reaching the most senior level in their firms in 2016, an increase from 17% in 2012. 

The gender gap is not only reflected in numbers, but in dollars too. In Canada, for example, among female auditors, accountants or investment professionals, half will be earning C$54,960 (US$40,814), compared with C$68,314 for their male counterparts. Similarly, in the UK in 2016 women in accountancy earned £67,680 on average, whereas their male colleagues earned £84,970 – a gender pay gap of £17,000, according to research by specialist accountancy and financial recruiter Marks Sattin.

While this general imbalance isn’t necessarily shocking, it is confusing given the large number of women who are entering the sector. In the US, for example, 52% of all new accounting graduates (with a bachelor’s or master’s degree) are women and, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2015, 63% of all accountants and auditors in the country were women. Worldwide, the Financial Reporting Council puts the percentage of women studying accounting at 50%.

Is it that women are less concerned about career advancement? Or because they can’t commit to the gruelling schedule at the most senior executive level as a result of traditional family commitments? Or is it a cultural hangover from days gone by? 

What’s the answer to moving women up both the executive and pay ranks?  

Sponsorship is one solution. The Accounting Move Project, an ongoing programme supported by the Accounting and Financial Women’s Alliance and the American Women’s Society of CPAs, says: ‘Sponsorship is one of the most powerful and overlooked dynamics for propelling women through the talent pipeline.’ Distinct from executive mentoring or coaching, sponsorship implies greater accountability, according to Move, because the individual sponsor puts their own reputation on the line to champion a particular candidate for a particular opportunity. 

However, the notion of sponsorship has yet to become the tone at the top. In its latest research, Move found that 54% of female staff at accountancy firms felt they would stay if they were headed for leadership positions, but only 30% said their own firms’ leaders (77% of whom are male) had discussed leadership opportunities with them. 

Ramona Dzinkowski is a Canadian economist and editor-in-chief of the Sustainable Accounting Review