Accounting for Feminisation and the Feminisation of Accounting in Ireland: Gender and Self-Evaluation in the Context of Uncertain Accounting Information

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Introduction

Accounting is a discipline defined by its context (Freear, 1977). In recent years, the context of accounting has changed dramatically in a number of respects. The transactions and events which accounting attempts to represent are subject to increasing uncertainty. Accounting standard-setters have reacted by requiring that financial statements recognise and disclose the "substance" of transactions rather than their legal form. More extensive disclosures of uncertainty are also required.

Such changes in the context of accounting reflect external changes in the nature of economic transactions which financial accounting is bound to represent. There are, however, further changes in society which have impacted on the accounting profession and which may, in future, transform the manner in which the profession deals with the uncertainty it faces. These include the numbers entering the profession. There are also an increased number of graduates entering the profession. A further significant change, reflecting a change in trends within society generally, is the increased numbers of women members of the profession. This has led to the emergence of a literature in accounting examining the role of women in the profession, the implications for professional practice and for accounting in society. However, the relationship between feminisation and judgement using accounting information in the context of uncertainty has not been heretofore explored in any great detail. As Maines (1996: 98) comments, "research on external users has not thoroughly exploited the heterogeneity of users of financial reports".

This paper embarks on such an exploration by examining the potential relationship between gender and confidence, given the disclosure of uncertainty in financial statements. The focus is primarily, though not exclusively, on men and women as users of financial statements. The paper is in three main parts. The next section outlines how accounting is shaped by uncertainty. It also describes the extent of female involvement in the accounting profession and explores its implications as reflected in the accounting literature. In particular, gender differences in perceptions of, and reactions to, uncertainty are examined. The paper then examines whether such differences are also found in an accounting setting characterised by uncertainty. The third section outlines an approach to the exploration of the effect of gender on the judgement and confidence of users of uncertain accounting information. It develops, first, a framework within which the uncertain context of financial statements is disclosed and, second, an experimental approach to the examination of gender effects on judgement and confidence in that accounting setting. The fourth section presents the research results. The paper concludes with a brief discussion of the potential implications of the research findings for the accounting discipline.

Uncertainty, Gender and the Changing Shape of Financial Reporting

Uncertainty and Financial Reporting

Tweedie and Whittington (1990) outlined what they saw as a broad consensus regarding the purpose of financial accounting. One of these generally accepted notions about financial reports is that they are intended to provide users with information for decision-making. Users of financial statements are defined broadly by the Accounting Standards Board (ASB), which is the accounting standard setting body in the United Kingdom. (The ASB's financial reporting standards are promulgated by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Ireland virtually in their entirety for application in the Republic of Ireland.) Users as defined by the ASB (ASB, 1999) include not only shareholders but also, for example, employees, those in the environment of the reporting entity, customers and the public.

If one defines accounting as a discipline that is concerned with information and with informing decision-makers (ASB, 1999), the influence of uncertainty on the discipline is clear. …