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Redefining the tax profession with women at the forefront


International Women’s Day is a time to reflect on the achievements of women and the progress that continues to be made in advancing inclusion across our profession.

By Robyn Jacobson, The Tax Institute 19 minute read

International Women’s Day is a global day to celebrate the social, cultural, economic and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating women’s equality. The theme for 2024 is ‘Inspire Inclusion.’ This marks the perfect opportunity to celebrate how far women have come in the tax profession and, more broadly, the finance industry. As a profession, we must continue to champion diversity. Against this backdrop, I reflect on what it means to be a woman in tax and how those of us in senior ranks can pay it forward to those embarking on the start of their careers.

A journey of progress

I was just 15 years old when I decided I wanted to be a chartered accountant. I was drawn to the intellectual challenge of the profession, the integrity, the opportunity and what I regarded at the time — and still do — as equality irrespective of gender. I had witnessed other occupations where gender balance was heavily weighted in favour of men.

Last year, I celebrated my own milestone … 30 years in the profession. Over these years, I’ve experienced and been witness to achievements, setbacks, challenges and valuable learnings. It seemed to me that the women I worked under had fought hard to break through the so-called ‘glass ceiling’; they were pioneers and had cleared a pathway for a succession of women to follow. 


When I started my career in accounting, the imbalance of female partners in accounting firms was evident, and it struck me that some women appeared to obtain their professional success through compromise, given the lack of flexibility in workplaces at the time. Working from home, flexible hours, remote digital connectivity and women being the primary breadwinner are concepts much more widely accepted today than they were 30 years ago. I recall that wearing pants to the office in the early 1990s was frowned upon! Some clients even insisted the firm service them with only all-male teams.

I’ve been fortunate in my career in that I’ve never felt that I was denied – nor provided with – opportunities based on my gender. I regard merit as the most important factor in selecting someone for a role, and merit has no regard for gender or any other distinguishing feature that makes each of us individual. I was also fortunate to have had champions who inspired and believed in me. These were people who held an unwavering belief in me and provided sound and selfless encouragement, guidance and counsel. Different from a role model, these champions were truly my personal cheerleaders.

As I look around the profession today, there are far more role models and champions for younger women than when I began my career. Women have risen to very senior ranks in government, corporate (including banking, mining and aviation), not-for-profit, finance, sport and music (look at Taylor Swift’s global influence, beyond her music). We can all think of many impressive women who inspire, drive change and have sound judgment, fierce intellect, boundless energy, passion for their craft and self-belief.

Beyond the numbers

It was once famously written that, as recently as 2015, there were more CEOs named ‘John’ than female CEOs. A Bloomberg article from April 2023 suggests that female CEOs first outnumbered any single male name among S&P 500 CEOs in 2018 and this remains the case today (separate from any trend that diminishes the preponderance of CEOs named ‘John’).

According to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s (WGEA’s) WGEA Financial and Insurance Services Industry Snapshot (December 2023), the pay gap for 2022–23 is 26.2 per cent, down from 27.7 per cent in 2021–22. Many employers have adopted diversity and inclusion plans, a means to better ensure that our profession is diverse; this includes gender diversity.

The ATO, one of the largest employers in our profession and across Australia, has increased female representation at the senior level to approximately 50 per cent. This is a commendable achievement and highlights that gender diversity is a readily achievable target. With a growing number of bright young women joining the profession, we all have a responsibility to ensure that this becomes the norm going forward and unremarkable in itself.

Thankfully, be it due to the passage of time, inevitable generational change, community and workplace education or a deliberate effort on the part of so many who have pushed for change for so long, we have seen a shift in cultural behaviour and attitudes. Today, women may not be represented as CEOs, in boardrooms or management roles as often as their male counterparts, but it is changing for the better. Many accounting firms have a recruitment intake that is much more equally balanced, even tipping in favour of female graduates. While this balance in senior roles inevitably tapers off as it remains common for women to be the primary carer of children, the diverse manner in which households operate and income is earned today is to be commended.

Forging the pathway ahead

Despite the steps taken towards achieving better gender diversity in our workplaces, improvements are still to be made. For example, the WGEA estimates that:

  • There is a disproportionate concentration of men in the upper pay quartile and women in the lower pay quartile;
  • A greater proportion of women are still primary caregivers of children; and
  • The number of men on boards and other government bodies outnumbers women by approximately 3:1 (with almost one in four boards having no female representation at all).

Other improvements can be made, such as a more equal spread of work undertaken. For example, according to the Tax Practitioners Board, as of 30 June 2023, 69 per cent of tax agents are male while 81 per cent of BAS agents are female. The distortion in favour of female BAS agents is not surprising. The flexibility afforded by being able to undertake bookkeeping work outside regular business hours, around the routine of children, is still attractive to many women. Perhaps there are lessons that the tax agent community could learn from BAS agents regarding the provision of more flexible working arrangements.

Government policy should continue to review and update our childcare and child subsidy systems to ensure they remain fit for purpose and reflect modern family and economic circumstances. These systems can greatly impact a primary caregiver’s ability to return to the workforce, having regard to their effective marginal tax rate, the cost of childcare and their entitlement to (or loss of) government benefits.

We also need to celebrate how far we have come and recognise that the momentum is propelling us towards a future that previous generations may not have ever imagined was possible. And that is a genuinely exciting thought.

Financial security for women

We are living longer and working longer, but all of us are mindful (some more than others) of ensuring we have financial security in our retirement. Women at or beyond retirement age today started working in an era where employer superannuation was not compulsory; in fact, many of them did not even work or did not have full-time employment. It is only my and later generations that will have been entitled to mandated employer contributions for the entirety of our work life. Then consider the impact that the gender pay gap and career breaks for caregiving have on superannuation balances in the long term. Lower pay means lower contributions, which directly affects compounding superannuation balances.

Sadly, we read too often in the media heartbreaking stories of separated women who find themselves with little or no superannuation and a long future of work or reliance on government benefits ahead of them. 

Government initiatives to close the superannuation gap include:

  • Concessional contribution carry forward rules.
  • Downsizer contributions.
  • The superannuation splitting rules.
  • Removing the $450 monthly income threshold for making superannuation guarantee contributions – this measure assists low-income earners, in particular women who made up 63 per cent of those whose monthly earnings were under this now repealed threshold.

This week, on 7 March 2024, the Minister for Finance, Minister for Women and Minister for Public Service, Senator Katy Gallagher, announced that the government will continue its historic reform of Paid Parental Leave (PPL) by paying superannuation on the government payment from 1 July 2025. Other reform measures that propose to modernise PPL and expand the payment to a full six months by 2026 are before the Parliament. The measure to pay superannuation on government PPL will help normalise parental leave as a workplace entitlement. Further details of this measure, including cost, will be released in the federal budget 2024–25 on 14 May 2024.

We all need to consider our long-term financial security, regardless of gender. However, the fact remains that women are more likely to have responsibilities, such as child-rearing, that can significantly affect their financial future. As advisers to our clients, we can be mindful of what can be challenging circumstances that affect their financial security.

Pay it forward to your successors

It’s an exciting time to be a woman in the finance profession, especially tax, given the bright future ahead. We have increasing momentum towards a more equal and diverse workplace and are in a position to capitalise on that momentum to reach that goal, potentially before we hand over the reins to the next generation of tax professionals. 

It is also important to recognise that gender diversity, although important, is only one aspect of a diverse and inclusive profession. A diverse profession has many benefits, including:

  • Increased creativity, productivity and inclusion.
  • The ability to attract and retain top talent from a wider talent pool.
  • Improved employee morale and engagement,
  • Better decision-making as a wider range of circumstances, factors and views are considered.

To achieve a truly diverse workplace, we need representation from all genders, cultures, socio-economic backgrounds, and other important areas (such as representation from all aspects of the LGBTIQ+ community). As a profession, it falls on each of us to recognise the importance of that goal and ‘inspire inclusion’ to work towards achieving it.

Those of us who have benefitted from the progress made over the past 30 years can recognise the role that a champion played in our development and success and pay it forward to the next generation. You do not need to share the same gender to inspire and instil self-belief in a young female professional. We can all do this by:

  • Sharing our passion, insights and learnings.
  • Providing essential technical training and development.
  • Validating their contributions in the workplace.
  • Interacting with them on an inclusive basis.
  • Encouraging and extending invitations to networking functions and events so they can broaden their network.
  • Suggesting they seek out the countless online, in-person, free and subscription-based resources that are now available to support women.
  • Encouraging them to consider career opportunities (particularly in tax!).

Closing comments

When I look around the profession today, I am optimistic about the opportunities for women. Our profession is committed to closing the gender pay gap and creating a more equitable future.

We can all draw inspiration from Muriel Strode’s 1903 poem, 'Wind-Wafted Wild Flowers, and in particular the opening line that reads, ‘I will not follow where the path may lead, but I will go where there is no path, and I will leave a trail.’

About the Author

Robyn Jacobson is the senior advocate at The Tax Institute.

About The Tax Institute

The Tax Institute is the leading forum for the tax community in Australia. Our reach includes membership of over 10,000 tax professionals from commerce and industry, academia, government and public practice and 40,000 Australian business leaders, government employees and students. We are committed to representing our members, shaping the future of the tax profession and continuous improvement of the tax system for the benefit of all, through the advancement of knowledge, member support and advocacy. Read more at 

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