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Women in Accountancy - Former student, now Mazars Audit Director

Charlene Lancaster - Mazars Audit Director

We catch up with Charlene Lancaster to find out how her career has progressed in a relatively short space of time, and to hear her thoughts on being a woman in accountancy.

Hi Charlene, tell us about your current career.

I’m a Director within the audit team at Mazars, Manchester.

I joined Mazars as a graduate trainee, 9 and a half years ago, and now I’m coming up to the big 10. Mazars has always been the right cultural fit for me, with a firm full of good people. Auditing is fast paced and at times can be high-pressured, so having a great team is very important.

I’m someone who thrives in an environment where there is plenty of variety and new challenges, so audit is perfect. I know it sounds a little cliché but in my job there are rarely 2 days the same.

The accountancy profession attracts so many different types of people (and characters).

I get the opportunity to travel with my job, which I love. The majority of my business travel is within the UK, however in the last 12 months I have travelled to China, Milan, Vienna and Barcelona for work and allowed myself some time for sightseeing.

Reality vs expectation

Before starting my career in audit and accountancy, my expectation mirrored how popular media portrays accountants: number crunchers and dare I say a bit boring (I think we have Monty Python to blame for this).

But that couldn’t be further from the truth. The accountancy profession attracts so many different types of people (and characters). From my own experience at Mazars, the office has a real buzz about it; I think it helps that around 50% of the Mazars UK staff are under 30.

Did you always want to go into accountancy?

No. I grew up wanting to be a lawyer, with a brief stint of wanting to be a Dolphin trainer. During my time at University I took a law module and discovered it wasn’t for me. It was totally different to my perception, which admittedly was largely shaped by a childhood obsession with the film Legally Blonde. True story.

I studied Geography at the University of Manchester. As many people studying Geography will tell you, many people would say, ‘Geography, what are you going to do with a Geography degree? Will you go in to teaching or... become a weather girl.’

I am not knocking either of those as credible professions, but Geographers in my experience get such a diverse range of experiences that they crop up in all walks of life.

I graduated from University in 2010, when the UK was recovering from a recession - it was not the best time to look for an entry level job. When I was weighing up what options were open to me, I saw that the top accountancy firms all had graduate opportunities open.

My Dad is an accountant, so I quizzed him on it and thought, OK, this sounds like something I could do.

So I applied for a graduate job at Mazars and was fortunate to get a place.

The variety and pace that a career in audit brings means there is rarely a dull moment.
What was your career path?

I have spent my whole career in audit. This might sound a little dull and linear, but the variety and pace that a career in audit brings means there is rarely a dull moment.

My training contract with Mazars saw me studying and working towards the ICAEW’s ACA qualification, which is typically completed as part of a three year training contract.

Three years later, I started developing towards my next challenge of taking on a manager role. I progressed quickly within the firm and was promoted to Audit Director in 2018.

Three pieces of advice I would give someone looking to progress in their chosen career:

  • Find the right organisation for you. You can normally get a sense of this from the people you meet as part of the recruitment process, but don’t be afraid to move on if the culture isn’t right. I have been fortunate in this respect;
  • Say yes to the right opportunities. Often we turn down opportunities that would be fantastic for our own development, often stating that we are too busy or feel we are not ready for the challenge. Step outside your comfort zone;
  • Have a mentor, or even better, have an army of mentors. Mentors may change over time, but I find they have had a positive impact on my development.
How did you study through Kaplan?

The ACA requires you to sit 15 exams in total, all of my tuition was classroom based through Kaplan. I look back on my time fondly. The lecturers were excellent and some of them I’m sure were aspiring comedians. It made the learning experience, dare I say, fun - but kept you engaged.

Of course it can be challenging when you’re having to study in the evenings and weekends, but I always liked the variety between classroom and on the job learning at Mazars.

The classmates I studied with for my very first exam were from a number of different accountancy firms. This stayed the same through the duration of my studies. I found the peer to peer motivation and support incredibly important throughout my studies and I am still in touch with some of the class today.

Have you seen a change in landscape? Are there more women in accountancy do you feel?

The intake at the Graduate/School leaver level is well balanced, with a 50/50 split between males and females. However, the gender imbalance is more apparent across the accountancy and finance profession at the Director and Partner level. Mazars fortunately recognise the importance of having a diverse leadership team and are taking action to address it. For example, it has signed up to Her Majesty’s Treasury Women in Finance Charter, pledging to address the current imbalance of women in senior roles and setting diversity goals.

3 years ago I was fortunate to be selected to attend a Mazars group run Women in Leadership seminar in Milan. There were attendees from across the global Mazars network and it was a fascinating experience to see how peoples’ experiences compared across different countries and cultures.

Crucially, the idea of what makes a good leader is changing.

Prior to the seminar a friend recommended the book Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, I would highly recommend.   Before attending the seminar and reading this book, I naively thought there was a lack of women in senior positions due to them focusing on family. However, there is so much more to it.

There are of course external hurdles such as juggling a career and a family but, in some organisations, the leadership is just not recognising the importance of a diverse leadership team.

I do believe the profession, and indeed the wider business community, recognises that gender imbalance in senior roles needs to be addressed, as well as diversity in the wider sense. The focus now needs to be on practical action. Some organisations and sectors are doing this better than others.

Men and women in business

I was once told that the business world was created by men, for men. I think to an extent that is true. In a business and political world, where the leadership is dominated by men, it makes sense that the interests of men are best served in such worlds.

However, I believe that is changing. Workplaces are adapting and offering more flexible work patterns (which can benefit both men and women). Crucially, the idea of what makes a good leader is changing. For instance, humility and openness are positive traits which women tend to have a natural tendency towards.

Ladies - bang the drum

I have read and experienced how women tend to be more risk averse when it comes to taking opportunities and pushing their own careers. As women we also have a natural tendency of modesty and therefore can fear sticking our head above the parapet and shout about how great we are. We can often undersell ourselves and therefore become overlooked for a position.

I have seen this first-hand when facilitating annual appraisals. I have seen very capable and talented ladies massively undersell their achievements, and I feel that this must represent a lot of women who then go on to be overlooked.

To help address this, and following my experience on the Women in leadership seminar, I established a monthly ladies lunch in my local office. This has created an environment where women can help each other and push each other forward.

We can often undersell ourselves and therefore become overlooked for a position.
So how do we resolve this?

It’s a huge question, but an interesting one. One thing, I think, is education. Yes, we are more educated on the matter but there’s still a long way to go in terms of learning about the differences between men and women, and appreciating the difference.

This goes all the way back to childhood, where the expectations differ between boys and girls from a very young age. For example, ideas such as ‘big boys don’t cry’ , this can have a huge impact on an adult man’s ability in later life to open up which can have a huge impact on mental health.

But the worst one for me is when a young girl is told she is ‘bossy’. What we should be saying is that girl has leadership potential.