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What Women Want

Professional And Personal Aspirations
Joshua Sim
BY Joshua Sim


  • A global survey found that female chartered accountants (CAs) face the most challenges during the mid-stages of their careers.
  • Worldwide, childcare and parenthood are heavily gendered, placing heavier demands on a working mother’s time, thus leaving her with less time for professional pursuits.
  • Although Singapore is considered to have largely gender-equal workplaces, more can be done to integrate diversity, equality and inclusion as corporate values.
  • Both employers and employees have a part to play, to create a more flexible and favourable work environment.

In Singapore, mid-career women seek to join more inclusive workplaces to advance their careers. This is one of the key findings in a new global study undertaken by Chartered Accountants Worldwide (CAW)’s Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion Taskforce.

The study sought to understand and map the career journeys of women in Chartered Accountancy through indepth interviews and surveys. After engaging more than 3,500 survey respondents and conducting 40 indepth interviews worldwide, it was clear that the mid-stages of women’s Chartered Accountancy careers face the most challenges. Having said that, these challenges are not insurmountable, and both employers and employees can play a defining role in overcoming them.


Across the world, women are still expected to be primary caregivers and undertake childcare responsibilities. When asked about their top barriers to career progression, 43% of women survey respondents chose “being a parent/guardian” and “taking time off to have/care for children”, compared to only 7% of men. This suggests that childcare and parenthood are still heavily gendered, placing heavier demands on a working mother’s time, thus leaving her with less time for professional pursuits. Qualitative responses uncovered tension between career demands and starting a family for mid-career female chartered accountants (CAs). One female respondent explained that she made a conscious decision to leave a well-paying job to seek employment in a less demanding sector before she started a family.

COVID-19: A window to what is possible 

Fortuitously, the period of the research coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw the widespread implementation of flexible work schedules. The study found that these new working arrangements were significantly more impactful for female mid-career CAs. While 67% of male mid-career CAs agreed with the statement that they found it easy to work efficiently from home, 80% of their female counterparts agreed with the same statement. 

The pandemic also opened a window of opportunity to better recognise mental wellbeing needs. Speaking up on mental health and wellbeing is no longer seen as taboo, which allows a more honest approach to these needs. A female mid-career CA from Scotland reported that during the pandemic, “you are seeing so many more posts on LinkedIn about more personal issues, especially the challenges that women face. I think this is really helpful”. This suggests that the widespread sharing of parenting challenges has helped to forge solidarity among parents, who were facing similar daily challenges. This, in turn, created a sense of community, comfort, and support. 


Comparatively, Singapore has a conducive environment for working parents. Almost 80% of the resident population lives in public housing; these are affordable and quality homes that are in high demand by most residents in Singapore. Public housing policies, such as the proximity housing grant, incentivise families to stay close to each other. This makes it easier for many working parents to get help from their extended family members, to share the childcare responsibilities. In addition, childcare subsidies and grants make it easier for mid-career CAs to meet the financial costs of childcare services. If additional help is required, professional domestic help services are also available to augment childcare needs. Because of the good mix of support – from domestic helpers, professional childcare services and family members – there is confidence in the quality of care for young children. A female respondent noted that her career has been smooth sailing, and she can put in long hours with the knowledge that her daughter is well taken care of.

Respondents perceived Singapore to be a largely gender-equal society with little gender discrimination regarding career and job opportunities. The report found evidence that companies in Singapore have incorporated strong childcare and family policies. When asked about the biggest enablers to career progression, Singapore CAs were four to eight times more likely to select “support when returning to work after a break”, “pro-family government policies”, and “additional care leave” as their top enablers, in comparison to the global average. This indicates that pro-family government policies are more widely implemented by companies in Singapore. These policies are key enablers for female mid-career CAs to continue pursuing their career ambitions; it also suggests that there are strong support schemes, such as the assignment of buddies, training or emotional support, for mid-career women when they return to work after maternity leave.


Despite having a supportive environment for families, Singapore’s female mid-career CAs continue to face challenges. Expectations of long working hours and the pervasiveness of presenteeism create invisible constraints, and they place undue pressure on personal relationships, work-life balance, and the decision to start families or have children. Although these barriers are not targeted at women, the expectation is for everyone to always perform similarly; this ignores unique needs, especially those of mid-career women, who may be thinking about having children.

Time constraints also place invisible limits on work and career opportunities. Although technical or accountancy-related training and resources are seen as a big enabler to career progression, the lack of opportunities to attend training courses was perceived as a barrier to advance careers. The report found that Singapore’s female CAs felt that they lack knowledge of industry opportunities. This may be due to the lack of time to be more engaged with professional networks or to discover the networking opportunities available.


The study found that Singapore’s women in Chartered Accountancy are willing to make career shifts to work in a more inclusive workplace. Female CAs in Singapore gravitate towards managers and peers who can understand their needs. They are almost three times more likely to choose inclusive workplaces as their biggest motivation for a career change, compared to the global average. They are also motivated by real-life examples of working mothers who are thriving at the workplace. The interview data suggest that mid-career women use personal networks to identify supportive managers who are understanding of their personal and professional needs, to discern genuinely inclusive workplaces.

The study uncovered a real and clear desire for empathy and understanding from organisations in Singapore – diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) are corporate values that most employees desire. Not only are women willing to move for a more favourable environment, the men, too, will make that shift. For instance, the study found that Singapore’s male CAs are more than two times more willing to change jobs to work in socially responsible organisations, compared to the global average.

Table 1 are some recommended steps for creating a more conducive work environment.

Table 1 Recommended action steps for employers and employees

EMPLOYERS: Implement flexible working policies
Employers can create inclusive workplaces by implementing flexible working policies. Over one in three female mid-career CAs highlighted flexible working policies as enablers for their career progression. Flexible working policies should be applied to all employees, to avoid the labelling of flexible working as an exclusive “working mother” policy. Flexible working policies would allow working parents to better meet and share their childcare and career responsibilities by giving them the freedom to plan their time across the day.

Senior management should also set the tone for inclusive workplaces. For instance, when it comes to being present, instead of privileging those that are “seen all the time”, senior management could help normalise core hours for all employees. Hence, the period from 10am to 4pm could be the core hours where physical meetings and employee presence are required. Beyond that, there could be flexibility in fulfilling work tasks. Senior management should also set the tone for networking opportunities to be inclusive. For instance, networking events can take place around convenient working hours, such as during breakfast or lunch. Networking events can also be better curated to include working mothers, by being better spaced out and excluding alcohol.

EMPLOYEES: Practise time management
Flexible working policies would only be productive for employees who practise effective time management. Besides managing their personal and work responsibilities, employees should also seek ways to optimise their time at the workplace. One way is to break down work tasks into small parts that can be achieved in small pockets of time throughout the day. It could also involve being more sensitive to opportunities to improve time management. For instance, employees tracking time spent on work tasks and processes may in fact be accumulating important data for their organisation in the consideration of adopting automation and other technological innovations for productivity.

EMPLOYERS: Train managers to be inclusive
Supportive managers are key to creating an inclusive environment to meet diverse needs. They help carve career paths that align professional goals with personal responsibilities, such as career progression and starting a family respectively. Managers should be skilled or upskilled with regular diversity and inclusion training, to be attuned to evolving best practices. For instance, some best practices include having regular check-ins, especially with those who recently returned from maternity leave, to identify the needs and challenges working mothers face. Timely adjustments and reviews focused on work tasks, rather than presenteeism, would also provide a better working environment for all.

The report found that supportive managers had the greatest impact on the career progression of women. According to the findings, 75% of mid-career women acknowledged that a supportive line manager and being given the opportunity to work on new projects helped with their career progression. It is clear that supportive managers are needed to properly execute flexible working policies.

EMPLOYEES: Speak up on microaggressions
While having a supportive manager is useful, employees should also play an active role in creating a more inclusive organisational culture. For example, employees should speak up against microaggressions. Microaggressions are the subtle, indirect, and sometimes unintentional speech and behaviour that can reinforce discriminatory behaviours or attitudes. For mid-career women, working environments can suddenly turn toxic when they become working mothers. Cultural assumptions or organisational culture might lead to negative or unreasonable expectations about working mothers’ career aspirations, abilities, and roles. Employees must speak up against microaggressions both formally, to their human resource department, and informally, in meetings and conversations. Doing so would prevent microaggressions from becoming an organisational norm.

EMPLOYERS: Implement mentorship programmes
When employees experience changes in their life journeys, they require guidance from experienced mentors. The report found that 56% of women respondents have indicated their interest to be mentored at the mid-career stage.

Respondents perceive mentorship to be an important source of career advice, for instance, to find ways to better plug gaps in their resumes. In addition, mentors may also serve as an avenue for emotional support. This is especially pertinent during the mid-career phase, when women are beset with negative emotions, such as stress, frustration, exhaustion, disappointment or isolation.

EMPLOYEES: Apply soft skills to communicate needs
Employees should acquire soft skills training to better communicate their needs to their organisations. Skills such as negotiation, teamwork, and communication are key to explaining unique needs and conveying possible solutions to managers and colleagues. The global report found that one in five female mid-career CAs recognise the value of soft skills as a career enabler. Effective soft skills would also be a good starting point to introduce supportive management skills to create new organisational norms that are more aligned with the values of DEI.


“Mapping Women’s Career Journeys” has highlighted both the successes and persistent challenges for Chartered Accountancy in achieving gender equality and inclusion. In this examination of women’s experiences in Chartered Accountancy, it is clear that the intersection of being a woman and a parent is where the most barriers exist. However, many of these barriers can be overcome through supportive managers, communities, environments, and organisations.
Chartered Accountancy, particularly in Singapore, has achieved much, but there is much more left to do.

The global report, “Mapping Women’s Career Journeys”, was launched by CAW on International Women’s Day 2023. ISCA is proud to be one of the six professional bodies from across the world that took part in the research. The other professional bodies are the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland, Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand, Chartered Accountants Ireland, South African Institute of Chartered Accountants, and Institute of Chartered Accountants of Zimbabwe.    

The key findings are available here

Joshua Sim is Senior Research & Insights Manager, ISCA.

Personal Development and Wellness
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