Spotlight on Laura Dutton, Partner at DSK Partnership

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Laura Dutton is a Partner at DSK Partnership and has been working for the company for 12 years. Laura specialises in the SME market, particularly business start-ups and audits.

We had an inspiring conversation with Laura about women in business, gender equality and challenging gender bias and stereotypes as part of our celebrations for International Women’s Day 2021. Read on to see what Laura had to say!

Could you tell me a little about yourself; who you are, where you work, and what your role involves? 

 My name is Laura Dutton, and I am a partner at DSK Partnership, which is a local accountancy practice. We now have three offices in London and the south-east, and we merged with Kings Mill Partnership, who are a Croydon and Surrey-based firm, on the 1st October 2020.

 In my role as partner, I mainly deal with accounts and compliance, so doing business start-ups, sole traders, and that sort of thing. But DSK as a partnership does anything from a one-man band sole trader through to multi-million-pound corporates and tax advisory audits. You name it we can probably do it.

 I actually worked for Kings Mill Partnership for twelve years and worked my way up from being the junior office “grunt” on our first-ever graduate programme through to being a partner. And then when we merged with DSK on the 1st October, I became a partner of the new twice as big twice as fancy DSK! So that’s exciting! We had a lot of excitement mid-Covid, mid lockdown; it was quite a big merger for us!

 Is accountancy something you’ve always thought about doing? 

 Not at all! However, I wouldn’t say I had a desire to do anything else. When I left University, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I studied Ancient History at Manchester, and I didn’t really have a plan. When I left University, I thought I would get a summer job, and I saw that Kings Mill were doing this graduate programme, and I figured I would try it out for the summer while I look for another job. And then I never left! So, there was no massive drive to be an accountant, but I found that I really did like that every day was different. There’s a lot of interaction with people and different businesses, and for a long time at Kings Mill I was in the audit team, so I got to be nosy which I loved! Going into people’s businesses, interviewing them about it, and getting to investigate what was going on was really interesting and every day was different, and I thought, why am I looking for something when I’m really enjoying what I’m doing, so that’s why 12 years on and I’m still there!

Would you say that the accountancy world is quite male-dominated?  

 Yes, it is, but I have noticed it changing. When I joined, the admin support team were women, and the payroll team were women, but I was the only female in the accounting team. Now our team is very much 50/50. That’s in a space of twelve years, and not because we’ve had active recruitment policies or anything like that, it’s just if you’re good, then you get hired regardless. In the twelve, nearly thirteen years that I’ve been there, I’ve definitely noticed a greater female presence in the accounting professionals’ team.

“It’s not about thinking like a man, because that’s not the point, the point is thinking like a woman but not feeling guilty for it.”

Why do you think it’s so important to have gender equality and balance, and a more diverse workforce, especially in senior management teams?

I think as a woman, you can bring different things to do the table. I mean quite often I’ll be in a meeting and be able to give a softer side, particularly in internal staff meetings. There’s just a different skill set that women can bring, so that’s a strength for sure. And also, there’s absolutely nothing in the job that says it can’t be done, so why not?

What is one piece of advice that you would give to other women looking at senior management roles?

Don’t let imposter syndrome get you. It’s so easy and it’s a massive thing, particularly for women in business. There’s an inherent stereotypical culture, you know if you need to go and pick the kids up from school, you’ll feel guilty for having to do it, but if a man needs to go and pick up his kids, he usually won’t even bat an eyelid. He would just say I’ve got to leave and then go pick them up without any guilt, whereas the women would feel guilt for going and that’s what we need to change. So, the thing that I think is most important is imposter syndrome. Just because you’re a woman does not mean that you are not as good, if not better than anyone else. If someone has trusted you with this role, it’s for a reason; they know you can do it otherwise they wouldn’t have asked you to. Also, don’t feel guilty for doing what you need to do and being where you need to be because again the reason you’re there is because someone knows you can do it, so you just have to believe in yourself.

It’s not about thinking like a man, because that’s not the point, the point is thinking like a woman but not feeling guilty for it. I would say the older generation tried to think and behave like men. I was talking to a woman from an older generation in a networking meeting, and she said on her office desk she made a point to not have any pictures of her children because she didn’t want to come across as maternal. Whereas I think that’s part of your personality, that’s part of who you are, so you shouldn’t hide it.

Do you think the pandemic will have an impact on gender equality?

Whether it’ll be a positive or negative impact I’m not sure, but I think it’s humanised everyone. I think there’s a lot more acceptance to the fact that this sort of background (gesturing to her child doing schoolwork to the side of her) is happening in a lot of houses. Do you remember when that child kept on bursting in the interview and everyone thought it was hilarious? No-one thinks that’s funny anymore, because that’s the new norm! So, I think it’s humanised everyone; I think everyone is a lot more accepting and understanding of people’s personal lives, and understand that we’re not necessarily on call, we’re not 9-5 robots anymore because everyone’s accepting of the fact that it’s difficult, and life is just difficult, particularly at the moment, so yes, I think it’s humanised everyone.

I don’t know about the long-term aspects, but I think short term it has been very positive because there has been a lot more visibility of what happens at home and more opportunities to share the workload and give each other, particularly co-parenting families where there are 2 parents, a lot more opportunity to share that and push each other forward. Whether when we go back to normal it’ll have a long-lasting effect, I don’t know, but fingers crossed it stays.

The hashtag for International Women’s Day this year is Choose to Challenge. What do you think is the best way for society to challenge gender bias and inequality?

To constantly ask why. As I said earlier, there’s absolutely nothing in my job role that says a woman can’t do it. It’s not about physical strength, or how fast you can run, there’s absolutely nothing about the physical aspect of a human body, so why on earth can’t a woman do it as well, if not better, than a man? So, it’s about asking the question why? Why aren’t there more women in accountancy? In the top 10, top 50 accountancy practices, why isn’t the board more equally shared? There’s no skill base that means it has to be a man, so somewhere, someone should be asking why.

It’s not about getting the job because you’re a female, you know, I would never want anyone to look at my CV and look at a man’s CV (which was genuinely better) and think I better employ her because she’s a woman. It’s about being invited to the process. I think most women would say if the man is better, employ the man, but put me up there, allow me to enter the space so I can try and prove that I’m better.

I think the thing that’ll make the biggest difference is for companies, at a senior level, to normalise people’s life needs. Normalise parental leave, not maternity leave, parental leave. I feel like there are men who don’t want to ask for the time off to share the maternity leave because it’s not the “done thing”, so normalise it. If a man wants to spend time with his kids and the woman wants to go back to work, there’s no reason why that can’t happen now, it’s a fantastic thing, so I think normalising home lives would help.

I’m very lucky because at DSK, the majority of the senior team have kids and are very accepting. So, when we have a member of staff that has to take their kids to a doctor’s appointment, it’s fine, they can just go. It’s about normalising that aspect of it so that women don’t feel put out there, and so the men aren’t going “oh she’s off again”. It doesn’t always have to be the woman, but it has to be lead from the top. It’s an uncomfortable place, and though I don’t feel it now, when my daughter was born seven and a half years ago, I felt incredible anxiety. I thought that coming back after maternity leave everyone was going to look at me differently, and think I’ve set back my career five years, but I was only gone six months and literally nothing like that happened!

Who is your biggest female inspiration?

I’ll be honest; I do have one, and it’s a bit soppy, but its Jackie Wilding from Bryden Johnson. She is a partner at Bryden Johnson, and she was the only female partner in my profession that I ever knew. She’s so nice, and we have a great relationship. On a local level she was an actual physical representation of something that I wanted, and to be able to be in a position of power and to have the type of job that I knew I wanted one day and be a nice person…she just kind of had it, and I wanted it.

I’m also inspired by working mums that show the struggle. When people are open, and they show that it’s a struggle, but then you still see them working hard and you see that success, I think that’s really nice to see. Seeing women lifting other women up, and it not being all high gloss glamour, Kardashian style where everything is perfect because you’ve got six nannies to help you do it, or you’re born with money so it’s naturally easier. I’m much more of a fan of showing that its bloody hard work but it’s worth it, and much more of a fan of people who show good days and bad days because everyone has them.

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DSK Partnership has a team of Chartered Accountants, Chartered Tax Advisors and business advisors and are also one of the fastest-growing digital accounting firms in London.