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Last Updated: Wednesday, 27 June 2007, 00:17 GMT 01:17 UK
Feminine women 'can succeed too'
By Clare Davidson
Business reporter, BBC News

Ruth Anderson, KPMG
Ruth Anderson set a precedent in the industry

"This was never planned," says Ruth Anderson.

"I mean" she adds, a gentle Enniskillen accent revealing her roots, "being the first woman in this position."

Two decades after joining KPMG in 1976, she became the first female board member in one of the so-called 'top four' accounting firms.

Since then, Ms Anderson, 53, has set another precedent by becoming the firm's first female vice chairman.

Business curiosity

It is hard to believe that her progression has really been "pure chance" as she casually says.

I think the large majority in any context tends to bring out the herd instinct
Ruth Anderson, vice chairman KPMG

"As a student I was adamant to be an interpreter," says Ms Anderson, a long beaded necklace dangling from her tall frame.

But half-way through studying languages at Bradford she decided she did not want to be a teacher or translator, leaving her unsure what to do instead.

A male friend who had studied theology made her realise entering the business world was possible, as she explains at the KPMG office tucked behind Fleet Street.

"When he said he was going to be an accountant I thought it was impossible - he hadn't studied economics!" laughs Ms Anderson.

But it made her think she too could make the leap.

She applied to several accounting firms and armed with several offers, opted to join KPMG.


It would be easy to assume from her calm and open manner, that her rise to the top had been seamless.

What is deemed assertiveness in men is often viewed as aggression in women
Ruth Anderson, vice chairman KPMG

Has she had faced discrimination as a woman? "Oh yes" she says, without missing a beat.

One of her earliest experiences came in her twenties as a trainee.

A project came up in Switzerland that she was keen to work on. Speaking French made her well suited for the work - or so she thought.

"But when I asked if I could go on the audit project the response was 'not a chance'".

The client's finance director simply "didn't like women", she says.

That wouldn't be allowed these days, she points out.

"But If I hadn't enjoyed doing what I do, I'd never had stuck to it for 30 years," she hastens to add.

'Herd mentality'

Whatever the secret to Ms Anderson's success, it clearly is not arrogance. "It is not just about being a woman in a man's world," she says, as she stands up in her office - making her more than 6ft frame evident for the first time.

"I think the large majority in any context tends to bring out the herd instinct that can lead to bullying of a small minority."

This didn't make their comments acceptable but "I don't think I was ever put down intentionally by men. It was never malice," she adds.

KPMG's support

Though the situation has improved for women since Ms Anderson started, KPMG suffers from a wider trend seen among city firms.

FTSE Female report
The women at the helm of leading firms remain a small minority

Accountancy, which has more or less the same number of women and men at entry level, loses a substantial number when they reach their thirties.

To tackle this, KPMG has set up an internal support network of women.

Progress is slow but the number of women at different levels is improving.

The number of partners for example rose from 14% in October 2000 to 19% in March this year.

The firm has increased flexible working options - open to all but taken up mainly by women.

In recognition of its progress in this area the firm was recently given Opportunity Now's City award, for an institution that develops "a culture which encourages flexible working".

Staying feminine

One of the hardest things for women in business in the lack of role models, says Ms Anderson.

She is in no doubt as to the women she most admires - "women who can and do juggle a home life and successful work".

She did not have a family - "a fact of life" but not - she quickly adds - one she regrets.

"All too often women think that in order to succeed that have to be like men," she says, leaning forward. "But they really don't".

"Women can succeed - in business or elsewhere - and remain feminine."

"I've seen so many women try to beat men at their own game," she sighs as she opens the door to show me out.

"But what is deemed assertiveness in men is often viewed as aggression in women," she says calmly.

"Once women feel they can be themselves without trying to be one of the boys - and can be considerate in the process, this will be real progress," she concludes.

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