Driving Gender Parity in Finance

Fazeela Gopalani, Head of ACCA – Middle East, chats with Ananke’s Sabin Muzaffar about her work at the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) in the Middle East, building strategic relationships and representing over 20,000 students, affiliates and members across the region
Driving Gender Parity in Finance

Tell us a little bit about yourself and the journey that led you to ACCA (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants)? 

Accounting is in my blood. My father was an ACCA member and ran a successful accounting practice in the UK, providing professional financial services to a variety of clients who were private individuals, small businesses and large enterprises. From an early age, my father advocated the power of the ACCA qualification and my path was almost mapped out by his aspirations for me based on his success and belief of the profession; complete my Bachelors at the University of Birmingham, attain the ACCA Qualification and then, longer term, taking over the family practice. Unfortunately my journey was expedited, due to my father’s early passing, and I ended up, at a young age, married, running the practice, completing my ACCA qualification and having two children. Fast forward 15 years, along with being the head of ACCA Middle East, I hold my FCCA, have attained an MBA from the University of Strathclyde, have previously worked as a Senior Manager at PwC before moving on to be the Head of Education for ACCA in the Middle East! I truly believe that me working for ACCA and inspiring others to follow this career path is the utmost tribute I can give my father.

We would love to know more about your focus of work at the ACCA?

As Head of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) in the Middle East I am responsible for leading the operations in 11 countries and representing more than 20,000 students, affiliates and members across the region, who work in all sectors and all levels of business across the Middle East. One of my fundamental roles is to grow the understanding of the value that professionally qualified ACCA accountants bring to businesses and economies in the region. This means I heavily rely on managing and building relationships with regulators, business leaders and strategic partners, alongside the ACCA Middle East members network to influence debate on key issues that impact the ongoing economic development of the region. Additionally I work closely with many educational institutions and government bodies across the region to encourage new generations to undertake a career in accountancy and finance.

How can professional qualification of ACCA trigger positive impact to the business and economies in the region?

We believe that accountancy is a cornerstone profession of society that supports both public and private sectors. That’s why we’re committed to the development of a strong global accountancy profession and the many benefits that this brings to society and individuals. This stands true whether globally or locally here in the Middle East. The current pandemic has seen a huge reliance on finance professionals to act with integrity, agility and professional excellence, all of which the ACCA qualification is accredited to providing!

Since 1904 being a force for public good has been embedded in our purpose. And because we’re a not-for-profit organisation, we build a sustainable global profession by re-investing our surplus to deliver member value and develop the profession for the next generation. Through our world leading ACCA Qualification, we offer everyone everywhere the opportunity to experience a rewarding career in accountancy, finance and management and being in a region where your financial status has a deep impact in to your study and career choices making our qualification accessible and affordable for all really does provide students a head start in to their career! In addition, our respected research, we lead the profession by answering today’s questions and preparing us for tomorrow, continued professional development commitment and engaged approved employer scheme ACCA is driving immense value to all its stakeholders.

What in your opinion, are some main key issues that impact on-going economic development of the region?

ACCA produced two insights papers that touched on this very subject; the Covid-19 Global survey and the “road to recovery report, where we learned that 80 percent of business leaders said they predicted a significant downturn in expected revenues and profit year on year, over one third of organizations had at the time of the report experienced cashflow problems, almost half of businesses had not undertaken a reforecast impacting ability to plan and almost one third of organizations had no business continuity plan in place – with almost 40 percent of smaller organizations agreeing with this. So whilst the pandemic has accelerated digital transformation activities, It has also brought to the forefront the need to meaningfully push forward on integration of social and environmental risks and opportunities into the core of business models. And to do so fast. In a post-pandemic world, business models that fail to authentically integrate the risks and opportunities related to how their organizations deal with to social and environmental issues, and their financial and ethical considerations, will lose out to those that do. Finance teams, especially in the Middle East have a key role to play in driving this integration across their organizations

Coming to the topic of inclusion, we do know there are some major gaps especially in the finance sector. So my question is where do women regionally stand as far as this (financial) sector is concerned?

With ACCA being the first UK accountancy body to admit a woman in 1909, we have long been championing the significant value that gender parity can drive both within the profession and regionally too. Encouraging women to aspire to, and attain, board positions is important to ACCA. ACCA is committed to diversity and supporting opportunities for women and has organized several events and discussions to raise the profile of this subject in the Middle East as part of our women in finance forum. In addition to this and supporting the regions inclusion agenda, a recent survey led by ACCA: Leading Inclusion, almost eighty per cent of respondents based in the Middle East from the accountancy and finance professions say they believe their industry is inclusive and open to all with forty-four per cent of Middle Eastern survey respondents felt within the profession there was no diversity issue that needed to be addressed.

What are some of the key challenge in the region as far as inclusion and diversity is concerned and what steps need to be taken to counter the situation? 

The diversity and inclusion discussion is one that is influenced by geography and culture. Like all regions around the world, the region has challenges around gender, culture and race/ethnicity. The balance of these vary from market to market, and even from one organization to another. These  differences may result from local attitudes or cultural sensitivities about certain aspects of the agenda. As accountancy and finance professionals, we frequently operate across borders and need to ensure that we have the appropriate levels of cultural sensitivity. We also need to ensure that we apply our robust ethical lens to the challenges of the diversity agenda. By focusing on the symptoms rather than their causes we run the risk of not making substantive and lasting change when it is necessary.

Has the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated this situation of gender gaps in the financial sector? 

Although it is probably too early to draw concrete lessons from the pandemic, especially in relation to its longer-lasting impact on the diversity and inclusion agenda, what can be recognized is that there will continue to be impacts. What we have noticed is that many of the jobs being cut as a result of the pandemic are disproportionately held by women and people of color. An analysis conducted for Harvard Business Review by McKinsey in May 2020 showed that ‘women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to the crisis than men’s jobs; Women make up for 39% of global employment but account for 54% of overall job losses as of May 2020.

What role is ACCA playing to promote inclusion and diversity? 

Since its founding in 1904, ACCA has had a key role in facilitating a profession that is open to all as a core value. Inclusion, along with integrity and innovation, are now ACCA’s three core values which link back to the unique reasons why ACCA was initially created more than a century ago. We have inclusivity at our heart, as is stated in our strategy. We are continuing to work on changing the mindset and perception of people at the grassroots level in order to achieve a long-term sustainable benefit of a rich diversity. ACCA reflect the diversity and inclusion agenda in our curriculum, through our ethics. We also support members and future members in gathering an ever-greater understanding of the role that we can play through continuing education programs We also support the development of the conversation through member engagement in their geographic location level. Lastly, we recognize the breadth of the agenda, not just focusing on what can be seen and what raises a headline but to embrace those under-seen and oft-forgotten diversities and be a profession that is truly open to all. With ACCA being the first UK accountancy body to admit a woman in 1909, we have long been championing the significant value that gender parity can drive both within the profession and regionally too.

Encouraging women to aspire to, and attain, board positions is important to ACCA. ACCA is committed to diversity and supporting opportunities for women and has organized several events and discussions to raise the profile of this subject in the Middle East as part of our women in finance forum.

Driving Gender Parity in FinanceWhat kind of future are we seeing post pandemic and especially in terms of inclusion when it comes to financial education, more participation of women and girls from educational to corporate level as well as fresh graduates to C-suite positions?

In a year marked by crisis and uncertainty, the corporate world is at the cross roads. The choices organizations make today will have consequences on gender equality for decades to come. The events of 2020 have turned workplaces upside down. Under the highly challenging circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, many employees are struggling to do their jobs. Many feel like they’re “always on” now that the boundaries between work and home have blurred. They’re worried about their family’s health and finances. Burnout is a real issue.

Women in particular have been negatively impacted. Women are more likely to have been laid off during the COVID-19 crisis, stalling their careers and jeopardizing their financial security. The pandemic has intensified challenges that women already faced. Working mothers have always worked a “double shift”—a full day of work, followed by hours spent caring for children and doing household labor. Now the supports that made this possible—including school and childcare—have been upended. Organizations are at risk of losing women leadership as senior-level women are under the same pressure to perform right now as senior-level men. Losing women leaders would make organizations a lot more venerable as women could essentially be the driving engines towards embedding the skills into an organizations culture.

In this ever-changing global environment, young people require resilience and adaptability – skills that are proving to be essential to navigate effectively through this pandemic. Looking into the future, some of the most important skills that employers will be looking for will be creativity, communication and collaboration, alongside empathy and emotional intelligence; and being able to work across demographic lines of differences to harness the power of the collective through effective teamwork. Women bring in a lot of these skills at work which will continue to prove effective in time. Incorporating these life skills within the education systems will now be more important than ever in nurturing the future talent.

Within the region we are pleased to see a rise in focus around financial literacy where both the public sector and private sector organizations doing their part in contributing to various initiatives towards supporting this agenda. Young national men and women will look to be a part of these initiatives equally, and we as ACCA are proud to do our part in ensuring we help support the region in realizing the ambition.


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