‘When I was making my choices, it was either law or accountancy,” says Dawn O’Leary. “I was advised then, that, as a woman, working in law outside of the larger cities, I’d possibly be ‘pigeon-holed a bit ’, (this was of course 25 years ago), into the family and divorce areas which didn’t really appeal to me. I was advised that accountancy, even back then, had more career options and was a bit more flexible, and that there were and would be more opportunities for women.”
Now Managing Partner with Davis Burton Sellek in Sunningdale in the South East of England, O’Leary says she was aware that accountancy had an image of being a male-dominated environment, but that this was never her experience of it.
“It’s always been quite encouraging.”
Part of that encouragement was the advice and mentoring of the then senior partner at Henderson Loggie, the firm O’Leary trained with as a CA.
“I was definitely put on the right path by Donald McIntosh, the senior partner there [Henderson Loggie]. On receiving a speculative CV from me, he took a few hours out of his day to meet with me and my father and said, ‘Yes, I’ll give you a job now but what I think you should do is: go to university, Dundee or wherever, get your degree, and then you will be able to train as a CA and give yourself so many more options. At university in 1984 almost 50 per cent of the students studying accountancy in my year were female and it was all looking very positive for women in the profession.”
“All the way through my training contract and in the early years in Sunningdale I’ve benefited from fantastic mentoring and assistance in developing my career. My experience of the accountancy profession is that it was, back in the 80s and 90s, and still is a really open environment. It’s something I’ve tried to carry on with as well.”
After completing a Master’s degree in accountancy from the University of Dundee, O’Leary trained with Henderson Loggie, and was admitted as a CA in February 1992.
In June of that year she moved to Davis Burton Sellek in Sunningdale, the move sparked initially by her husband’s work commitments.
She had envisaged moving back to work in Dundee within a few years and possibly with Henderson Loggie, but “when I’d been here at Davis Burton Sellek about four years and after I’d had my first child Cameron, I knew we wouldn’t be going back. I then realised that rather than looking for a move to a larger firm in the South, remaining in the smaller firm environment and by that time well entrenched in the firm, actually offered me the best chance of carving out a career with good partnership opportunities while still allowing me to balance family and home commitments as well.
“I just thought, actually, the grass isn’t going to be greener anywhere else.”
O’Leary returns time and again to the idea of striking a work-life balance. For her, remaining with a smaller firm was a key part in achieving this.
“If you want a hands-on family life and a fulfilling career without taking lengthy breaks, I personally don’t think the large corporate environment is the best place for a woman. My move to a smaller firm wasn’t planned but with hindsight, for me, it was the best thing I could have done. It gave me a fantastic opportunity to quickly work my way up the ranks to partner, get involved with really challenging clients and work and because of the close proximity and reasonable working hours, spend lots of time with my children, and ultimately get fairly close to attaining that seemingly elusive – ‘work life balance’.
“Friends of mine with children who remained in the profession working for top 20 firms have found it quite difficult to find this balance and some of those who ended up leaving have found it quite challenging to pick up their careers again elsewhere.”
A recent survey of the top 100 accountancy firms by Accountancy Age appears to show that the problem goes beyond the top 20 firms. The survey showed that the highest rate of female partners in a firm was only in the low 30s, with the majority of firms having less than 20 per cent female partners.
If O’Leary was to act as mentor to a young female CA, what would her advice be?
“I suppose my advice would be: no matter which size of firm you train with, it’s just to be aware that there are lots of options out there, and without sounding defeatist or lacking in ambition, if you want to keep your career on track and have a family life you probably need to make your move sooner rather than later to a family-friendly environment giving yourself the time (before children) to become an important asset in the firm and where in the future can have a real say in the management and direction of the business.”
The work like balance doesn’t happen overnight and it’s a constant challenge to keep everything juggling. The mother of two sons aged 17 and 15, O’Leary describes taking maternity leave as having been “quite tricky, because both my partners in Davis Burton Sellek were male, and had no children, so it was quite ground-breaking for everyone. I had three months maternity leave with both, that’s all. I knew that I either had to leave or get back as no one replaced me and the partners were covering my work.”
As well as the support of her mother, who travelled from Dundee for school holidays to help with childcare, O’Leary says nannies and au pairs were helpful in allowing her to continue working while her sons were growing up. She also thinks the short length of her maternity leave helped.
“Although it was tough at times, I think going back early was an advantage as I got myself and the boys into a routine quickly and together with a supportive working husband, really good childcare five minutes from the office, soon settled back into the next phase of career progression mixed in with motherhood! I personally have doubts about whether or not the ever increasing length of maternity leave actually benefits anyone – be it the employees, the employers or the children themselves.
Careful career planning which enables you to hopefully be in a position to spend more time with them later in their lives when they really need you, grappling with numerous activities, GCSE’s, A levels and life generally, seems to me, the preferred option.”
This ability to return to work and continue with career progression is not a universal experience and O’Leary is often surprised when attending various professional events and functions by the relatively low numbers of women in attendance and often wonders what became of the ‘50 per cent’ who used to attend lectures with her back in the 80s.
O’Leary recounts the story of a friend of hers, who worked in a larger firm, and who returned to work part time after maternity leave.
“She soon felt that working part-time in her early 30s was holding her back. She eventually left but found it really difficult to get back into a practice role with challenging work and prospects and was viewed by many potential employers as ‘too overqualified’
ICAS Director of Member Support Services Patricia Gallacher says that female CAs can find returning to work challenging after maternity leave, particularly where they have taken a career break or extended leave to have several children.
“Firms have taken steps to try to ease the transition,” Gallacher says. “But we do hear of women – and it is still primarily women – for whom returning to work is difficult. Their confidence levels may have fallen and they may struggle to find part-time and flexible solutions, if that is the approach they take to balancing work with the demands of raising children.
“ICAS sees supporting these members as extremely important. We have already begun career break networking groups, to allow CAs to meet, hear about career opportunities and discuss shared experiences.
“We are also planning a dedicated network for people who are on parental leave or a career break to raise children, so they can share experiences and hear about the many opportunities that still exist for them.”
Having children certainly didn’t hold back O’Leary’s career. A salaried partner since just before the birth of her second son, Blaine, she was made a full partner shortly after she returned from maternity leave, in 1998 at the age of 31.
“There was a generation gap between me and the firm’s existing partners, and I think at the time they were thinking about succession planning and the longer-term which was good for me and them. ‘The thinking was – what’s a few months, really; it didn’t make any difference and fourteen years later I’m still here.’”
Her move to Managing Partner happened quite naturally, she said. The then partners decided on a retirement plan, with the senior partner leaving immediately due to ill health and the audit partner gradually, working a four- and then three-day week for a few years. This allowed O’Leary to take over the management of the practice immediately and put her stamp on the way forward and gradually migrate over to her other role as the firm’s audit partner.
“The firm was relatively traditional in terms of structure in the past and had the usual role of senior partner in keeping with many other professional practices. However, it was clear to me that in order to grow and develop, the firm needed a slightly different management style and culture moving forward but one which still promoted sound mentoring to all members of the team. Three years on we are well on the way to achieving our aims and Davis Burton Sellek is very much a modern practice with traditional values which appears to be a winning combination”
As a footnote, helping her make the progression to managing partner was an unlikely secret weapon: “The firm’s senior partner when I joined was strangely enough, originally from Aberdeen, and even down here in the heart of the South East of England a few clients mentioned that they were glad that the firm and their financial affairs were still being looked after by another ‘canny Scot’!”
To find out more about the ICAS Career Break networking event, contact Patricia Gallacher on: firstname.lastname@example.org of +44 131 147 0100
Source: Padraic Ryan, ICAS Digital Journalist