Article: ‘Equality of opportunity is key,’ says ACCA’s Helen Brand


‘Equality of opportunity is key,’ says ACCA’s Helen Brand

As a part of our Women’s Day: #SheMatters campaign, Helen Brand, Chief Executive, ACCA, shares her perspective on the D&I landscape in the accounting profession and how business leaders can play a crucial role in building scalable and sustainable organizations that are both inclusive and diverse in the digital age.
‘Equality of opportunity is key,’ says ACCA’s Helen Brand

As one of the few women to lead a global professional body, Helen Brand has been instrumental in driving ACCA’s work in developing the accounting profession across Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. Brand has fulfilled the role of Chief Executive of ACCA since 2008 and is also the founding member of the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC) and now sits as Vice-Chair on the IIRC Board. 

Helen Brand is also a member of the University of Exeter Business School International Advisory Board and a member of the Deakin University Business School International Advisory Board. Her voice has been crucial in shaping conversations surrounding the role of ethics in the rapidly transforming accounting profession in this digital age. She is a strong advocate for the power of wider corporate reporting and is a staunch supporter of skilling programs that build the workforce of the future. 

For Helen Brand, professionals of tomorrow, irrespective of their gender or generation or level of expertise, must be aware and prepared for the “changing expectations of individuals in the workplace, shifting social morals and values, new types and levels of connectivity and demographics.” 

As a part of our Women’s Day: #SheMatters campaign, the People Matters team caught up with Helen Brand who shared her perspective on the diversity and inclusion landscape in the accounting profession and how business leaders can play a crucial role in building scalable and sustainable organizations that are both inclusive and diverse. 

You have considerable experience across the 179 markets across which ACCA operates currently. How do you see the current Diversity and Inclusion landscape in the accounting profession at the backdrop of Industry 4.0? 

My experiences of working internationally have shown me that talent and ambition is everywhere and only needs opportunity to flourish. But global inequality – of gender, socio-economic background and access to resources – is not levelling fast enough. There are still too many examples of lack of access. For example, in the UK’s top companies, it’s seven times more likely that a CFO or finance director will be a man rather than a woman. And, as chief executive of a professional body where 47 percent of our members and 58 percent of our students globally are women, that lack of balance is concerning. 

We’ve made important strides in embracing diversity and inclusion globally in recent years – both in understanding what it is, creating corporate policies to promote it and celebrating diversity role models. But we are still not moving quickly enough towards genuine equality of opportunity – and that’s both a loss for individuals and for corporates in terms of an untapped pool of rich talent.

Creating awareness around Diversity & Inclusion helps build an inclusive culture at the workplace. Do you think organizations are ready to factor in an inclusive mindset as a deal-breaker at the time of hiring?

I think it requires a shift in thinking, which is very much happening. Because there is a growing body of research that shows a correlation between diversity and better performing businesses, corporates are increasingly alive to diversity as a business asset. But it is all too easy to recruit in your own image and we all need to actively challenge this and embrace diversity as the true corporate strength it is.

What are the different areas of diversity that organizations need to work towards? What is your advice for leaders to build scalable D&I initiatives?

There are lots of initiatives globally to try and tackle gender balance at the board level. The issue of addressing gender balance at the senior leadership level is lagging behind and needs tackling, through similar focus. I think there is far less clarity about other forms of diversity, which are just as important to creating innovative, balanced solutions to complex problems.

The first step is to know what your organization looks like; only then will you know where you are under-represented and what you should be tackling and tracking. 

When you are clear where under-representation is happening, it’s important to take a critical review of career paths in the organisation. Are they visible and equally available to all forms of talent? And do they support building a pipeline of diverse retained talent for the future? 

What are the key pillars of building a cultural fabric that fosters inclusivity? 

I would say valuing and embracing difference – and that means welcoming challenge aimed at creating the best solutions for customers and stakeholders. It also means having a purpose and values that reinforce and celebrate the power of difference, rather than work against it. The ability to re-invent as an organisation, responding to the challenges our rapidly evolving environment presents, will be essential to business success – and that re-invention can only happen with fresh, radical and different perspectives being brought to the table. 

What kind of metrics can be applied to measure the effectiveness of D&I initiatives? 

KPIs on workforce diversity – at board level, C-suite level, manager level and across employees – are always helpful and increasingly widely used. If you can measure diversity, you can manage and take interventions when and where you see under presentation. 

In the UK, gender pay gap reporting which came into effect for large companies in 2017 and this has helped focus attention on the issue. Although not perfect, it has shifted attention and activity towards achieving equal pay – an important element of inclusion.

Also, measures around corporate innovation are telling. Along with being the right and just thing to do, promoting diversity should help generate, fresh new thinking – so tracking new products and processes that are helping companies stay ahead and create added value are also useful. 

Conversation, understanding, advocacy, discussion, acceptance, policy changes, and finally implementation. The journey to translate diversity conversations into a living, breathing and thriving inclusive culture comes with its challenges. What according to you can accelerate this transition? 

That growing body of research I mentioned, linking diversity to better corporate performance, is really powerful. Companies looking to embrace diversity also need real, practical examples of what others have done. Those leading companies that can talk about their successes and be a beacon for others will make a real difference. Also, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of all of us in the workplace, as individuals. We need to constantly challenge ourselves to make sure we are seeking out difference, welcoming it, and actively promoting it.

What are your top priorities for D&I in the context of the future of work?

For ACCA – and our employees – it’s about developing people and teams that are adaptable, ready to embrace new thinking and technology and can continue to take ACCA successfully forward. With a truly global network of members, students, partners and stakeholders, we can only meet their needs if we have a diverse and inclusive workforce that collaborates effectively. 

Can you tell us in one word what Diversity and Inclusion means to you?

If it’s just one word, it would be ‘fairness’. Equality of opportunity is a right we should all be entitled to, because talent is everywhere. So, the opportunity to make the most of what we can all offer should be everywhere too.   

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Topics: Diversity, #EachForEqual, #SheMatters

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