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Leading Women in Payroll: In Conversation with Lou Gray

Written By Rishmita Aich

Leading Women in Payroll: In Conversation with Lou Gray

Conventionally seen as a male-dominated profession, the chiselled jaw of accounting has been re-casted in the last few decades to become more accommodating to women. But the question here is, have the stereotypes really been buried? Or is the wide gender gap now reduced to just some cracks and crevices on the professional playing field?

The answer is it’s still a ‘Work-in-Progress’. Research reports like the one conducted by Accountancy Age shows that even though women today are as qualified as men to handle top positions in the accounting profession, there still remains a considerable difference in terms of the gender pay gap, achieving higher ranks in corporate structures and tackling unconscious bias. It’s a battle half won and clearly, there’s more that needs to be done – thanks to all the phenomenal female leaders in the profession who are working day and night to attain the equality that every woman deserves.

One of those female leaders is Lou Gray, the Head of Transitions & Operations at EY Absolute. Gray is a payroll professional who is not only an expert at solving payroll problems, but she also challenged the stereotypes embedded in the profession for decades by achieving a “Chartered” Status in payroll management. Gray met with a fair share of bias in the early stages of her career in payroll but quickly turned the tables around with her determination, talent and true grit, once she set her sights on her only career goal: ‘being at the top of the profession.’

Here’s a fireside chat with Gray about her career trajectory, life experiences and the learnings she got from them. In this interview, along with sharing some thoughtful insights, she shares her wisdom, talks about her journey and her struggles. She tells us how she defined success on her terms, achieved it by her own rules and built a career that has now become an example for budding professionals in payroll and finance.

Here’s how the chat goes…

Q1. You’ve worked in payroll for 32 years and have worn many hats during the course of your career. Looking back at your career, what made you pursue a chartered status in Payroll?

Well, it’s an honour to be assessed and recognised as being at ‘the top of the accounting profession.’ I am absolutely proud of this achievement. I still remember the day when they called to give me the good news. I was actually on a train station platform and I might have given out the biggest ‘yahoo’ ever. It was unbelievable.

Throughout my journey, I have gained extensive knowledge within the payroll, HR and finance sector which aligns me to excel at the work I do. I believe my quick thinking abilities allow me to achieve targets within fast-paced working environments and solving any problem.

According to me, it was my spirit to learn more and the aspiration to reach heights in the payroll industry that kept me motivated and pursue the chartered status in payroll.

Q2. How does your usual day look like as the head of transitions and operations at EY Absolute?

As the Head of Transitions & Operations, I manage the whole team and have the responsibility for the day-to-day tasks coming in.

The day starts with a daily call with the team. We have huddles where we discuss the work that me and my team are doing for the day and if there are any issues that I need to escalate. I also focus on automation of payroll, making improvements for GDPR, and eliminating the manual payroll tasks.


Currently, we are also looking at working globally. We have global clients, and we also have global teams at EY. So, we work in collaboration, build relationships, and plan on how we can take that forward. This global collaboration enables us to learn more and makes the day more interesting.

Q3. You’ve held several leadership positions throughout your career and even made a switch from the government to private sector. What’s the greatest risk you have taken in the 32 years of your career so far?

The biggest risk that I took was the move from Government service to a Payroll Bureau service – which has been a great learning experience. I worked in the government sector for 2 decades but what I learnt in the private sector in the last six years is far more than those 20 years.

The thing about the Payroll Bureau is that there are different clients with different demands – all coming in at the same time. You need to understand the software, look after the team and make sure everybody is equipped to do their job.

Clearly, the most important thing that I have learnt in a Payroll Bureau is multitasking and that has been a crucial learning in my career trajectory.

Q4. You were a part of the Editorial Board of Reward Strategy and you were also chosen to be CIPP’s Northern Ireland ambassador. Why is being an advocate for the profession such an important part of your career?

I think that we need to raise the profile of payroll. We’re at a time where Covid-19 has allowed payroll experts to show what they can do and the importance of their role – and my aim is to keep raising awareness about payroll.

I speak at a variety of UK payroll events highlighting the profile of the payroll profession and promote the benefits of CIPP* membership at the national forums. I also participate in the Editorial Board of Rewards Strategy which allows me to interact with the leading lights in the world of both – pension and reward.

CIPP: Chartered Institute of Payroll Professionals

Q5. The representation of women in the finance industry has always been severely lop-sided. In fact, the finance industry has become notorious for presenting a tougher work-life balance to its female employees, often driving women to make the choice: family or career. Lou, can you tell us about your journey of overcoming barriers ?

Absolutely. I think the turning point in my career was 26 years ago.

Back in 1995, my financial controller called me into her office and told me that my career was over and I was four months pregnant. That day, I left the office thinking ‘I don’t think so’.

A year later, I passed my accounting technicians exams to prove what I was capable of.

It may come as a surprise but in the 90’s, it was conventional to discontinue working or switching to part-time hours once you have children. And I didn’t want to be that person.

My purpose was to show the world that having kids or a family was not the end of my career, it was just the beginning.

Eventually, this qualification allowed me to move into the finance office within the local government.

A few years later, when I was pregnant with my second child, I graduated with a foundation degree in payroll management. Not even once did I think of dropping my career.  All I wanted was to pursue my career and education regardless of having other responsibilities – and I think I have done that successfully.

Q6. The pandemic has led to a prolonged spike in activity for the payroll profession. How do you think the pandemic has shaped the profession and what do you envision for the payroll industry in the next 5 years?

Payroll professionals will face a storm of challenges as we approach the month of April.

Believe it or not, the coronavirus pandemic has sparked the biggest changes to the UK payroll system.

We have to deal with the ever-evolving CJRS* whose rules are re-iterated and morphed regularly. Keeping abreast of these changes has been a huge challenge for accountants.

Apart from coping up with the changing regulatory legislation, we have another long-term challenge of adapting to new technology and evolving with times. This change is not a one-time thing, but an ongoing process making sure that we are able to meet client demands.

In the coming years, the use of automation and technology is going to dominate the industry. Life of an accountant is going to be considerably easier because mundane tasks like manual calculations are going to be eliminated. However, to reach that stage we will need to go through a steep learning curve.

*CJRS: Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme

Q7. What are your 3 top tips for the next generation of women in payroll and finance?

#1. Believe in yourself

There have been times when my colleagues came up to me for some work and I panicked because I thought I couldn’t do it. Even though I had done that task before, but still I believed that it was beyond my skillsets. That’s called Imposter Syndrome and I have dealt with it several times in my career.

However, I’m sure, I’m not the only one dealing with it. Imposter Syndrome is a real condition and it may affect any of us. The only method to deal with it is to go out and find a coping mechanism or question yourself ‘why don’t you believe in yourself?’

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A Closer Look at Imposter Syndrome

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome or experience is the feeling that people have when they are not in terms with their success. People with imposter syndrome often think that they have inadequate skills and they believe that they are reflecting as being more capable than they truly are, regardless of their qualification and experience.

Imposter Syndrome in Women

According to Forbes, 75% of female executives across industries have experienced imposter syndrome. It is shocking to witness how highly accomplished women frequently struggle with self-doubt, low self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy.
Imposter syndrome permeates corporate workplaces, but women are particularly likely to experience it because most organisations are male-dominated spaces and there are not many examples of women working and succeeding in a similar field.

How to Overcome the Imposter Experience?

Even though so many women experience the imposter feeling, the good news is that you can overcome it. Some specific actions include:

  • Guiding managers to be supportive and empathetic
  • Opening up lines of communication to strengthen relationships
  • Ensuring that the employees have a sense of belongingness and they feel valued
  • Prioritising diversity and inclusion in the workspace so that the employees feel comfortable
  • Listening and valuing opinions and viewpoints

#2. Network with the Professional Circle

The importance of networking cannot be emphasised enough. We all know it’s vital to have a network of friends you can trust, but having a network of colleagues and confidants in this profession is equally important.

Sometimes even after having 32+ years of experience, you might not know the right solution to a problem. And in that case, you can reach out to a friend who can help you tackle the problem because they might have dealt with a similar issue in the past.

#3. Be Open to Ask for Support

Be open to ideas and suggestions that help you grow – personally and professionally.

It’s human nature to get anxious about things while figuring out ways to do things better. In such cases, it’s always a wise decision to reach out to someone who inspires you and helps you move in the direction that actually changes your life for the better.

It’s important to remember that seeking support enables growth. As mentioned earlier, women still have a long way to go and the only way to bridge that inequality gap is by supporting and enabling other women to make room for themselves – in this highly competitive space.

Watch the interview highlights here:

About Guest Speaker:

Lou Gray is the head of Transitions & Operations at EY Absolute. She is a qualified professional leader and a proud member of CIPP. With a career spanning over 32+ years in the industry, Lou Gray is passionate about sharing her experiences and knowledge by speaking at conferences, in interviews, writing articles for industry publications and delivering training courses on a multitude of topics.

Reach out to Lou Gray at:
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/lou-gray-chmcipp-64b63a55/

*Note from the Editor: This blog is a part of a special series that features “Leading Women in Payroll”. Stay tuned for more updates on this or contact our experts for discussing your payroll outsourcing needs.

 

Leading Women in Payroll: In Conversation with Lou Gray

ABOUT Rishmita Aich

As a Journalist turned Marketer, Rishmita has developed a unique perspective when it comes to analysing & covering the changing landscape of the accounting industry. Influenced by Andrew Sorkin and Stephanie Flanders, she aspires to deliver souhgt-after advice, fresh updates & detailed analysis of HMRC legislations through her work for accounting practices to make better, informed decisions. She has spent the last 3 years creating insightful content for accountants, and is currently most passionate about the work she is doing to educate accountants about outsourcing. More Posts(23)  

Originally published Apr 16, 2021 09:04:38, updated April 16 2021

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