Gill Ball, who steps down this week as head of ACCA, looks at progress women are making in business


As I come to the end of my presidency of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, the world's largest and fasted growing global body for professional accountants, an area that never fails to interest me is that of women and business.

Of course I am biased - as a woman in the business world and the organisation's third female president.

If your image of accountancy is that of middle aged men in grey suits - think again.

Some 53 per cent of ACCA's students are women and in the West Midlands, where I am from and where I work, the last year has seen an 8.6 per cent rise in female members, compared to a three per cent growth in male members.

Over the past five years in the West Midlands there has been 43.4 per cent growth in female membership compared to 16.3 per cent in male. So statistics suggest that the future of accountancy is female!

I am proud that my professional body seems to be leading the way in gender equality.

There are signs of improvement elsewhere too - research from Cranfield International Centre for Women Leaders Project show that while business leadership in the FTSE 100 is still the domain of men, the situation is improving. In 2000 5.8 per cent of FTSE 100 directors were women - that figure had risen to 11 per cent by 2006. Still a long way to go, but the signs are positive.

ACCA believes that more can be done and has argued for some time that the Government should encourage and promote self employment as a way to tackle gender inequality where it exists.

Inflexible working structures tend to have a negative effect on women who are often have caring responsibilities. But self employment can break down some of these structures. It is the ultimate flexible working - as a woman can run a business to fit in with her own requirements and to fit around responsibilities.

The Government has taken some action - it set up an Equality Review to look back at progress on equality over the past 60 years and also at what still needs to be done to ensure that every person in the UK has equal chances to achieve their potential.

The Women in Work commission looked at the gender pay gap and made a number of recommendations such as encouraging girls to enter into non traditional roles in school and valuing traditional female roles such as in the 'caring' professions and Government produced the Strategic Framework for women's enterprise which set out what should be done to improve the number of women setting up in business.

Research undertaken jointly by the Economic and Social Research Council and ACCA shows there are sound economic reasons why female entrepreneurship should be encouraged.

It highlighted that if women started businesses in the UK as the same rate as men there would be an extra 150,000 extra businesses each year. Women starting up in business will tend to provide a more immediate contribution to the economy: around one in five women come into self-employment from unemployment compared with around one in fifteen for men. And a pound invested in developing women's enterprise provides a greater return on investment than a pound invested in developing male owned enterprise.

ACCA believes there are a number of practical measures which can be taken to encourage more women into business. These include an exemption from business rates if the business is run from home and tax relief on childcare. It is madness that in this day and age a PA is tax deductible but a nanny isn't - when the reality is that childcare costs could be seen as necessary to run a business.

These practical measures would enable many more women to make that first step into self employment. The key here is enabling people to make the move into self-employment.

Our research shows that women can achieve on their own terms in the working world and this is something I hope future presidents of this global accountancy body continue to address.