International Women’s Day is a significant day for ACCA: as a membership body, we owe a large part of our identity, our diversity, our past and our future to the many pioneering women who have shaped and led ACCA.
More than 100 years ago, in 1909, Ethel Ayers Purdie was the first female member admitted to a professional accountancy body – ACCA. Ethel not only paved the way for women in ACCA and the profession, but also campaigned vocally for suffrage and for fairer taxation treatment of women.
Ethel was the first of many trailblazing, inspirational women that have shaped ACCA. From Vera di Palma, the first female president of any international accountancy body to Helen Brand, who has this year overseen a decade of extraordinary progress as our chief executive; we truly would not be where we are today had we not welcomed these exceptional leaders
This year, it’s exactly forty years on from the coining of the phrase ‘glass ceiling’ to describe thwarted careers and ambitions – especially for women. Yet, we are finding that this glass ceiling may have been cracked, but it’s certainly not smashed.


The global theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is “press for progress”. It’s an acknowledgement that we need to make real, measurable progress on the many issues that face women around the world, including in the workplace – from gender pay parity to equality of opportunity.
And business leaders – like many of you here today – must lead the charge.
But of course, as much as we expect our leaders to fight for opportunity and equality, it’s important for ACCA to also walk this talk. And I am proud to work for an organisation that embraces diversity so openly and thoroughly.
ACCA was founded on the core values opportunity, diversity, innovation, accountability and integrity – values that we still embody to this day.
We have a proud history of commitment to diversity of all types. Our 200,000-strong membership spans more than 180 countries and we come from all walks of life. 46 per cent of our membership and 56 per cent of our student base are female. Our Council is representative of this diversity: of 36 members, 58 per cent are women and they live and work in 14 different countries.
Across the world, ACCA members and staff are campaigning for progress on gender equality. We are vocal about issues such as disparity in pay and boardroom diversity. We, together with many others, continue to work towards achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 5: to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls by 2030.
The ACCA Qualification is all about opportunity: our open access policy enables anyone to qualify as a professional accountant, no matter their background or circumstances. And our recent changes to the Qualification – including the new Ethics and Professional Skills module and redesign of the ‘Strategic Professional’ level – are ensuring that ACCA-qualified professional accountants continue to meet the needs of employers and the profession in a rapidly-changing global environment.
And meeting the needs of the employers of today and tomorrow is a really important point here, because employers and their recruitment strategies are the next part of the success equation for diversity.


It’s time to look at the traditional career ladder and smash it through the glass ceiling. All companies, large or small, should be looking to open up access to opportunities across all people, whatever their gender, background or circumstance.
We recently looked into the diversity efforts of the big four firms as part of ACCA’s ‘Generation Next’ research series. We uncovered some examples of good practice, such as KPMG’s women in finance forum and Deloitte’s introduction of ‘blind interviews’ to tackle recruitment bias. But certainly, there’s more to be done.
One thing that we’re examining at the moment is ways of helping women back into the workforce after a career break. ACCA will soon be launching ‘Returnship’: a returning to work programme which will encompass a series of thought leadership pieces, case studies, conferences and tailored job search resources for professional accountants.
Our Generation Next research showed that creating the leaders of tomorrow is an on-going task for organisations of all sizes, and that diversity is a huge concern. The tone of any organisation must be set clearly from the top, with a transparent culture that’s committed to diversity. And diversity progress should be measured – after all, what’s not measured can’t be managed.
There are so many more large and small ways that all of us can work to improve opportunity and diversity in our workplaces, and I’m sure that our panellists will have much to contribute in today’s discussion.
If we are to shape the profession, and the world, for good then the founding ethos of ACCA remains as pressing today as it was in 1904: our profession should be open to people of all ability and background, and it is our job to remove any artificial barriers in their way.
Equality isn’t just for International Women’s Day: it’s an important part of our history and our future, and we must continue to push for progress all year round.
Thank you.