Dear tax sector, International Women’s Day requires more than virtue signalling!

The author at the midnight protest march (Leiden, 9 March 2024)

Over these past few days, my LinkedIn feed has been filled with happy little messages about International Women’s Day (IWD, 8 March) and the progress being made at all levels of the tax sector. Traditionally, women have been under-represented at the higher levels of the profession. But all of this is changing, with more women partners and board members than ever before. Well done us!

As an old-school feminist, I am obviously in favour of recognising female talent and merit. There are more than enough highly competent women to sit on the (ethical) boards of firms or join the partner group. It’s good that this is widely recognised. However, I am uncomfortable with this corporate popularisation of pink. Outside the tax bubble, the dangers facing women and girls are much, much more sinister than just being overlooked for a promotion.

Protest march in Leiden

Just one day after IWD, I found myself marching through Leiden in the middle of the night as part of an demonstration following a series of serious sexual assaults on young women (including students) in the city centre. The perpetrator(s) have not been caught and many people, including the large undergraduate population, are now basically terrified. Sleepy old Leiden should be one of the safest places in the world. But it isn’t. The demonstration was organised at short notice and brought together an estimated 300 people, including the mayor of Leiden, who spoke briefly in support of the demonstration. This was followed by a poem about violence against women, written by the Dutch poet laureate. The organisers did a wonderful job! But what a shame that this was needed.


Now, any right-thinking person will find the Leiden attacks abhorrent. Unfortunately, this isn’t something that the average person can do anything about. Short of forming a citizens’ militia (which I would 100% join), your options are limited to avoiding dark alleys, traveling in packs, and not drinking alcohol outside of your home. These options are not great because (a) they are restrictive (the fault does not lie with the women!!) and (b) they do not actually guarantee safety. Many people will be feeling pretty powerless at the moment, even though the police are working around the clock to find the attacker(s).

I strongly recommend following some basic training in self-defence (SD), for both women and men (who can also be attacked). Realistically, an SD-class won’t turn you into G.I. Jane/Joe overnight. But you can learn some basic techniques and become better at identifying risks quite quickly. (But having said that, SD-training aimed specifically at women is still quite hard to come by. This deprives (young) women of an opportunity to gain some confidence and learn some techniques (but see here (Shuri Ryu karate), here (Krav Maga)). In my view, University Leiden should offer free, professional SD-training to students and staff.

The dark side of IWD

All this begs the question. What can a tax firm or tax professional do about any of this? Catching literal rapists isn’t quite the same as implementing a Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) strategy. But that doesn’t mean it should be ignored. When trumpeting success, equal attention needs to be paid to the darker aspects of IWD (and perhaps a sizable cheque to a women’s crisis organisation) is called for, of course avoiding the obvious risk of virtue signalling, i.e. “look at us, not only do we have lots of female partners, we are so mega-woke that we also pay lip service to gender-based violence as long as it doesn’t cost us anything”. Limiting IWD to a public celebration of (at best) a few thousand female professionals who now have a higher salary is quite simply frivolous.

Pay the cleaners more!!

Oh, and while we’re on the subject of avoiding frivolity, perhaps we could rethink the sector’s approach to female solidarity and extend it to those women who are just outside the tax bubble. Promoting women to senior positions is hardly evidence of women’s solidarity when those at the bottom of the corporate pyramid – I’m talking about cleaners and catering staff – are outsourced to companies offering near minimum wage on a zero hours contract. IWD has its origins in the US socialist tradition, and it wouldn’t be out of place for accountancy firms to demand high wages for these low-paid groups. A company that uses precarious, low-paid labour falls short of any serious commitment to ESG goals.


About Anna Gunn

Fiscaliste met de specialisaties EU-belastingrecht en fiscale exotica. Geruime praktijkervaring met fiscale staatssteun.

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