African female chartered accountants are a minority in South Africa – even though they could play a significant role in reducing poverty and improving living standards for entire households.
The first African woman to qualify as a chartered accountant [CA(SA)] in South Africa was Nonkuleleko Gobodo. When she graduated in 1987, she paved the way for women in the industry as well as for transformation in the private sector. But more than 30 years later, African women chartered accountants remain a minority.
According to the South Africa Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA), black women CAs make up just over 3% of industry professionals. Even the stats that seem to validate industry transformation can be misleading. Almost 63% of those who passed the most recent APC exam (the final theoretical examination taken by prospective CAs) were black – but the category encompasses African, coloured and Indian candidates. The number of African candidates who failed the exam was worrying, SAICA noted.
“There are many reasons why especially female African CA candidates are not qualifying with the professional designation,” says Lesedi Diseko, Head of Bursary at the African Women Chartered Accountants (AWCA) association.
Founded in 2002, AWCA is a non-profit created as a forum for African women chartered accountants to support each other, and to channel donations to fund the studies of aspiring African women CA(SA)s. It has financed 135 bursary students over the past 20 years, and recently partnered with Milpark Education and CA Connect to award five bursaries to deserving candidates. These bursaries were for postgraduate studies – a vital step in the CA (SA) journey towards the ITC board exam.
The collaboration is not only about financial support, but also invests significantly in mentorship and guidance. AWCA research has shown that postgraduate study is the area where the majority of prospective CAs encounters the most setbacks. Often lacking funding for further studies, students are compelled to work and study at the same time.
The online education model provides greater flexibility for working students, but poses other challenges. Gareth Olivier, founder of Milpark Education’s CA Connect, part of its School of Professional Accounting, thinks it’s imperative that institutions acknowledge the environment in which most South Africans are trying to pursue higher education – a combination of financial hardship, poor socio-economic conditions and being the first in their families to earn a degree.
“No matter how capable a student, higher education is often an intensely precarious and lonely journey,” he says. “Enabling broader access isn’t just about flexibility – it means various layers of support and a sense of community that help motivate, inspire and drive students.”
There is ample research that reveals how educating women both empowers them and increases the incomes and living standards of entire households. Meanwhile, uplifting female chartered accountants in South Africa also means strengthening both governance and national economic development by introducing a financial skill into the marketplace.
And yet getting black female CAs to the table is a challenge.
A recent study by university post-doctoral researcher Sedzani Musundwa investigated the difficulties women face when attempting to qualify as CAs. For her PhD study, she spoke to 22 newly-qualified CAs about their lived experience; and the results highlighted complex racial and class divisions. Many had taken longer than usual to complete their training, having dropped out of studies and returned at later dates.
Those from lower socio-economic areas described dealing with family tragedies and health problems; and of losing bursaries when failing courses during periods of exceptionally challenging life circumstances. Musundwa calls for more initiatives to support black female CA candidates as they attempt to study chartered accountancy.
As South Africa battles poverty and social inequality, the call for more robust support for the education of girls and women cannot be ignored. Supporting the training of female chartered accountants takes it one step further, as they are also likely to contribute significantly to general societal and economic upliftment.
“As we push for more successful outcomes in education, the need for targeted partnerships that focus on student needs becomes more imperative,” adds Diseko.
“The academic journey towards becoming a chartered accountant is long and arduous. But by supporting more black women especially on this path, we not only help individuals out of poverty and improve living conditions for them and their families; we also bring much-needed financial expertise into the South African private and public sector.”