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Women in tax and their achievements

08 March 2017 / Reshma Johar
Issue: 4590 / Categories: Comment & Analysis

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  • More pressure for women to be promoted to senior roles.
  • Self-awareness can be as important as technical know-how when developing a career.
  • At HMRC, women are in 42.7% of the senior positions.
  • Importance of the Women in Tax network.

As well as being the date of the UK’s final spring Budget (perhaps), 8 March was also International Women’s Day. This global celebration of the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity.

It is important for women embarking on a tax career to know that they can reach the top of the profession – whether in practice, commerce or academia. Indeed, why would they not think that? Reading about the achievements of Rita de la Feria, Jo Maughan, Jo Wakeman and Lisa O’Hare, it is clear that in the world of tax gender is no barrier.


Academic heights

Rita de la Feria is an academic who specialises in tax law. Married with five-year-old twins, her career started in Lisbon and Ireland working for Arthur Andersen. She left practice to study for a PhD. Since then she has lectured and conducted research at several universities including Oxford, Durham and now Leeds. Rita has helped governments to write policies that have brought their countries increased revenues and better sustainability.

Rita specialises in VAT, EU constitutional law and tax avoidance. She has also been involved in corporate income tax in the context of the EU’s harmonisation measures.

Rita and her husband have moved several times for each other’s career. One key aspect of success and a good relationship is to have a supportive partner who backs opportunities to be taken rather than missed. She said: ‘I feel lucky that, throughout my academic career path, I have been supported and often steered in the right direction. Things had fallen into place naturally.’

At European tax conferences, Rita has noticed that, over the years, there has been an increase in female tax professionals and academics. ‘It used to be accepted that a panel was all male but this is no longer the case as this is being challenged and spoken about, because there is a need to be seen as gender-balanced. If anything, there is a greater pressure for women in senior positions and other minorities as they are required to show their faces at events and meetings, so that visually places of work are seen as balanced and diverse.’

Rita believes it is important for there to be a larger body of senior females in the tax profession so that the gender balance becomes more natural.

She admitted that after a woman has children ‘it is difficult to find the hours to climb the career ladder’, due to juggling work and family. Work-life balance is important but promotions are still very much based on productivity and hours of input.

Her advice is to be ‘friendly and open’. She recommended going out to talk to people rather than sit in the office.


Coaching skills

Jo Maughan left tax in 2014 to become a career and leadership coach to tax and finance professionals.

After studying law and languages at university and a short placement in a law firm, Jo joined Coopers and Lybrand’s tax department in 1992, and qualified as a chartered accountant. A few years later Jo moved to BP. She said: ‘I enjoyed being involved with the implementation of tax advice and persuading the people in the business to do what was necessary to resolve or minimise the company’s tax exposure.’

Her last full-time tax role was as head of tax for BP’s UK refining and marketing businesses. But she recalls it was hard to move up the career ladder because she did not ‘seem to fit into the BP culture and could not find a way to change myself without losing myself’. She believes she was recruited because she was different, although that in itself could be challenging.

The idea of leaving tax intimidated Jo at first, given that she had attached part of her identity to her tax role and high salary but, after a life-threatening brain injury, she realised something had to change. She said: ‘It was the push I needed as I was spending my life doing something that was no longer the right fit. My career change was gradual. After leaving BP, I worked four days a week with PwC helping them develop their tax risk business. Then I did tax consultancy for two or three days a week, gradually building up my coaching.’

Jo believes it takes concerted effort to progress to become a senior businesswoman: ‘Each person has their own way of doing things and sometimes organisation and culture can support your development if it is a good fit, but in other places it can be a real struggle because the fit is not there.’

As to career advice, Jo said: ‘It is easy to focus on developing skills but it is essential to build self-awareness to progress – use judgment, influence, networks and relationships. It is not just about whether you can do the job, it is more whether you can persuade people to believe that you are the right person to lead an area. Think about the impact you have on others and, more importantly, the impact they have on you. Each of us has learned to behave in a particular way and it is about unpicking these behaviours to become more influential.

‘Coaching enables people to modify their thoughts and behaviours so they become more successful and achieve their goals. We can learn to think and act in different ways. We are then more resilient and more able to successfully handle challenges.’


Public office

Jo Wakeman OBE is director of large business for HMRC. She joined the Inland Revenue in 1985 on the graduate training programme tax inspector’s scheme in an office handling local compliance, enquiries and investigations around west London. Since then she has had many roles in HMRC, including personal assistant to the director of Inland Revenue’s programme to introduce income tax self assessment, head of the national minimum wage compliance team and head of business change and stakeholder engagement on the Carter programme, which introduced return online filing services.

Each role has lasted between two and three years. Jo said: ‘These were opportunities that came into view and I simply grabbed them.’ The changes gave her the chance to apply her skills elsewhere and to develop them.

Jo took a two-and-a-half-year break to travel with her husband to Africa and Australia. The hardest decision for her was whether to return to the UK to continue working with HMRC or to stay in Australia. She returned to the UK, but she and her husband spent six years commuting to see each other before he returned to the UK, just before their daughter was born.

Jo has recently attended a senior women’s network meeting in HMRC where gender balance and women’s representation at senior levels was discussed. HMRC has made steady progress over the years and, at 31 January 2017, women hold 42.7% of the senior roles. Among the reasons for this is that HMRC can offer flexible working patterns and manageable workloads, giving a better work-life balance.

Those at the meeting recognised that they could not be complacent. Jo said: ‘A challenge for people in senior leadership roles is not to pull up the ladder behind them but instead to reach down, support, mentor and encourage colleagues to make the same journey. It is said that women will not apply for a position until they are confident they can do 100% of the role, while men are happier to take the risk – applying when they can do 50%. We need to do more to ensure women have more confidence so that opportunities are taken and not missed.’

Jo’s advice is to ‘enjoy tax and work, push yourself and step into areas you are not 100% sure you are quite ready for.’


Branching out

After her history degree, Lisa O’Hare joined the tax department in Arthur Andersen in 1998. She worked in investigations gaining experience working with former Revenue officers on serious tax cases from the early stages to negotiations with HMRC.

Lisa left to join KPMG, carrying out a similar role in 2000. While there, she broadened her experience by working in corporate tax team and developing client relationships. She said: ‘I enjoyed working with a range of clients from small and medium-sized enterprises to public limited companies, working closely to gain a greater understanding of the business and then building relationships.

Then came a year-long move to Deloitte, after which Lisa moved into industry to work for the Co-op where she has worked her way up to her current role as head of direct taxes. She enjoys the variety of businesses within the organisation but has also been involved in disposals and acquisitions arising from the rescue and rebuilding of the group after the financial crisis that hit its banking arm in 2013. However, she described her switch as challenging because, in industry, there is not the technical network that exists in practice. Instead she had to rely on herself to interpret tax legislation and provide advice.

She is particularly pleased to have been instrumental in helping the Co-op to achieve the ‘fair tax mark’, which involves making tax policies available to the public and HMRC.

In the meantime, Lisa became involved with the Women in Tax network. She began by following the group on Twitter and LinkedIn, but ended up joining as a committee member and leading the network in the North West. Lisa now runs a series of breakfast meetings and technical updates throughout the year. She believes the network resonates and interests other women and has given her a renewed excitement in what she does.

As for career advice, Lisa said: ‘You can only do what is right for you; know what you want and go for it. Do not be afraid to ask for support. Most people would be flattered to be asked.

Issue: 4590 / Categories: Comment & Analysis
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