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Michael Murray is an Australian author and commentator on corporate and personal insolvency law and related policy and law reform, in Australia and internationally. No legal advice is offered or given.

The proportion of insolvency practitioners who are women

Around the time of International Women’s Day and more generally there is often discussion about the low proportion of women registered as liquidators or trustees in Australia – under 10%. Any assessment of why that is the case needs input from other disciplines depending on the depth of inquiry but an analysis at a professional level can be revealing.

A good analysis remains Gender essentialism and occupational segregation in insolvency practice.[1] Essentialism assigns individuals to tasks on the basis of assumptions about what are said to be distinctively male and female traits. These are found to lead to gendered divisions of labour and configurations of professional networks. As the authors say, current focus on ‘diversity’ can adversely legitimise essentialism and sustain occupational ‘ghettoization’.

A receiver went to a pub …

Perhaps consistent with that, the article opens with a story of a woman appointed as receiver to a pub, telling the director on her arrival that she would be making all the decisions and would need him to explain the business to her.

‘He was not a happy bunny. He pinned me up against a wall and punched the wall on either [side] of my head telling me that if I wasn’t ‘a ******* woman’ he’d have punched my lights out. My colleague had to run out of the premises to call the police, as his staff tried to prevent the phone being used (in the days before we all had mobiles). I’ve never been so pleased to be a woman!’

As with many such researches, its findings were open, on the one hand indicating ‘the continuing potency of gender in everyday professional life’, and on the other suggesting ‘the limitations of diversity-orientated policies and the complexities of formulating transformative agendas’.

Dangerous, action-packed image

Self-perception is relevant. Other researchers[2] have described insolvency practitioners’

‘dangerous, action-packed image [with] stories about travelling alone, facing unknown, even life-threatening situations’, which ‘form an important element of practitioners’ self-projections’.

But those researchers concluded that

‘there is no concrete evidence as to the effect of this near absence of female insolvency practitioners on the style and ethos of the insolvency profession. The human dimension of insolvency cases was acknowledged … yet most felt that human issues had to be subjugated to the need to act fast and do the job that had to be done. Apparently, those that got too involved, or too caring, did not stay in insolvency for long.[3]

Insolvency practice is unique in the extent of the legal authority of the IP, the inherent lack of prior knowledge of the insolvent and the reality that there is often resistance and obfuscation. At the same time, it is usually distressing for those involved. None of those needs to be seen as requiring gender based attention, rather personality types.

Dr E Streten

Streten’s recent research contains much evidence of how IPs see themselves, including both male and female practitioners’ perceptions of the maleness of insolvency – described by her as ‘blokey’ in the nature of networking opportunities; although, it might be said, a focus on alcohol and gambling is not the preserve of either gender. Her research was into the private sector, with different outcomes likely in public insolvency administration. She does not address solutions but notes that AFSA, ARITA and ASIC had liaised in 2018 ‘to consider and address’ the issue. In 2020 this seems to have led to a ‘joint gender balance survey’ followed by ‘focus groups’ to discuss the results.

Streten’s research provides a good basis for those bodies’ further examination of the issue at a professional level, along with international studies, with a caution that women’s assumption of their own stereotypes don’t help, nor of men’s[5]. A good example of a practical response is R3’s Women in insolvency and Promoting the insolvency profession as a career of choice of June 2014.

Boards

Then there are those studies about gender issues in business, one study being said to ‘provide compelling evidence of a relationship between the gender composition of directorships and insolvency risk’, although with some qualification that women tend to be more selective and less risky in their business choices.[6]

But none of this sees settled and in any event is well beyond a lawyer’s learning.

Research project

Which brings to me to a research project for an MPhil that appears to have had no interest from anyone, female or male. As the project says

‘Given the advances in representation by women in business leadership and accountancy profession generally, is it inevitable that there remain ‘gendered occupational niches’?

This project investigates the nature of professional work undertaken by insolvency practitioners and profiles the state of the profession to examine whether there are any isolating influences or barriers to entry for one gender or the other. It will identify the key determinants to effective performance to the role of insolvency practitioner and whether any systemic biases become barriers to entry’.[7]

The fact that this has never been taken up may indicate something as to the perceived value of the study, whether it is within the educational focus of Australian accountants,[8] or the level of attention womens’ insolvency groups give to being more informed about the issue.

Changes?

We may now be beyond a female insolvency partner of a firm commenting in 1994 that

‘when you walk into a room, the men look behind you to see whom you are going to take notes for’

and a female director’s 2003 ‘defence’ to inattention to her directors’ duties in signing company documents which ‘were not explained to her’ in situations where

“I would usually have a frying pan in one hand and be signing with the other”,[4]

although not in other respects.

A change in culture may be occurring with the issue continuing to be usefully debated, and with the reality of a turnover of an aging profession assisting.

 

[1] (2015) Accounting, Organizations and Society, 40. pp. 41-60, Joyce & Walker.

[2] Insolvency Practitioners and Big Corporate Insolvencies, Flood & Skordaki, 1995.

[3] Flood & Skordaki, 1995.

[4] DCT v Clark [2003] NSWCA 91

[5] Streton’s reported view that insolvency ‘did not necessarily marry well with being a mother of young children due to inflexible hours and travel requirements …’.

[6] Director Characteristics, Gender Balance and Insolvency Risk: An Empirical Study, Wilson et al, 2009.

[7] QUT Business School, The gender profile of the insolvency profession.

[8] Compare CAANZ’s limited recognised academic qualifications with those of ICAEW. 

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One Response

  1. Hi Michael,

    This topic is certainly receiving a fair bit of attention in the insolvency space lately. I agree with your comment that insolvency is more about personality type rather than gender. In my opinion, a career choice in insolvency brings with it more risk than your stereotypical accounting role, regardless of gender. I still remember a story of the male practitioner who was punched in the face for making someone wait too long to pick up their fridge.

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