Women in accountancy: Interview with Jill Jones

Jill Jones is the former North West Regional Managing Partner of RSM where she was also a main board director and acting COO until her departure in June 2020. She is now a Non-Executive Director at Dow Schofield Watts and a number of other organisations.

Here she talks about her own experience in a senior leadership position, offers advice to other aspiring females and explains why diversity is about so much more than just policies and words.

Jill Jones

What challenges, in your experience, do women face in the accountancy profession?

The challenges in accountancy are similar to those that women – and indeed men – face in most professions such as juggling career, family and personal responsibilities. In my experience, though, there are often subtle differences in the way men and women think and communicate which is evident in leadership teams and which, if embraced, can be a great strength for the team and transformational for the organisation.

For me, climbing the ranks was fine but it was different once I got to the top. I was the only women at the table at the beginning. My communication style, views, principles and priorities often did feel quite different which initially was a surprise.

A book at the time helped me understand what I was seeing and experiencing. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg gave me the resolve to get my voice heard and make change happen. It was a lightbulb moment for me and I’ve shared the book with many women and men since.

What advice would you give to aspiring females in the profession?

  1. Keep going – keep juggling, stay focused and be resilient. When things go wrong or get tough, don’t let it phase you – it happens.
  2. Be true to yourself – don’t compromise your principles and ethics. If something is wrong, call it out; don’t be complicit in covering up bad behaviours.
  3. Don’t beat yourself up. We have to juggle a lot of different responsibilities – you can’t excel at everything, compromises are needed. Don’t worry that what you’re doing isn’t perfect – be the best you can be and be proud of what you are. Don’t focus on what you’re not.
  4. Embrace knocks and setbacks – see them as a chance to grow as a person. Take positives from negatives wherever you can. Similarly with mistakes and failures. Learn.

Is the culture of the profession really changing? And how do we create greater diversity?

Over the last decade there has been considerable change and we have seen many more women rise to the top in our profession. Diversity can’t be forced, but it can be encouraged and education can be improved. Over time, the benefits will become more apparent. Those organisations that don’t embrace diversity in its widest sense will get left behind and those that do truly embrace it, will flourish.

Diversity within a team – not only in terms of gender but also ethnicity, personality, language, nationality, age and background – creates far greater value than the sum of its individual parts and lays the foundation for long-term success. This is particularly important in our profession where people and relationships are everything – our internal teams and our clients and third parties.

Diversity and inclusion are not about words and policies – they are about a culture of openness, transparency and respect for everyone. Poor behaviours and poor cultures won’t have a place in successful teams and organisations – for long. Leaders need to lead by example, inspire and help others grow. Care, kindness and support bring great benefits and are an essential part of a leader’s make-up; as is emotional intelligence. A diverse and inclusive leadership team with a rich tapestry of perspectives should bring great success.

What does the future hold? What impact will changes in the profession have on women?

The accountancy landscape is undoubtedly facing a period of transition – again. The dominance of the larger accountancy firms is being challenged by regulatory pressures while the career motivation of professionals, particularly entrants and younger individuals, is changing. Work life balance is much more important than it was and COVID has brought a completely new perspective for many.

It is exciting to see how this is driving the emergence of new, agile and flexible business models that challenge the status quo, and will in turn offer more inclusive, balanced environments.

Dow Schofield Watts’ innovative model provides an opportunity for finance professionals to run their own business in a way that suits them. It was part of what attracted me to the role here – we’re really challenging the traditional partner career path and creating new opportunities for all in the future.