This study investigates if a gender effect exists on the audit fees associated with the presence of women in roles closely related to the audit process. The analysis is based on the largest European corporations studied between 2016 and 2018. The results show that firms with female chief financial officers and more female directors on the audit committee pay significantly lower audit fees than other firms. However, the results for the remaining gender variables (audit partner, chair of the audit committee, and chief executive officer) do not show any association. Additionally, we find that accounting expertise drives the association between female directors and audit fees. Therefore, neither non-expert female directors nor, more surprisingly, female directors who are labelled as financial experts, have any significant effects on audit fees. Another interesting finding is that the gender variables provide significant results when they are observed in more gender egalitarian contexts, though not in less egalitarian settings. These results have interesting implications at various levels.
The accounting profession is usually viewed as particularly gendered (Almer et al., 2012; Carmona & Ezzamel, 2016; Haynes, 2017). This study continues a well-established line of research on the relationship between gender and audit fees. It investigates how the presence of women in roles more closely related to the audit function (engagement audit partner, member and chair of the audit committee (AC), chief executive officer (CEO), and chief financial officer (CFO)) impacts the level of audit fees. According to agency theory (Jensen & Meckling, 1976), principals (shareholders) and agents (managers) are likely to have conflicting goals. In this context, an external audit reduces incentive problems that may arise when the firm's managers are not the owners of the residual claims generated by the firm. Both the supply- and demand-side theories of the audit function provide arguments for a significant impact of the appointment of women to these positions on audit fees. As in previous studies (e.g., Hardies et al., 2015; Lai et al., 2017), we focus on audit fees because (i) they are the direct outcomes of decisions made by the AC (Lai et al., 2017); (ii) they are expected to differ across audit partners based on their respective characteristics and reputations (Hardies et al., 2015; Zerni, 2012), and (iii) there is evidence that managers participate in these decisions (Cohen et al., 2010; Dao et al., 2012; Dickins et al., 2008; KPMG, 2004). The empirical analysis relies on the constituents of Standard and Poor's Europe 350 (S&P 350) stock market index for the period between 2016 and 2018.
The accelerated process of incorporating women into senior management positions over the last few years has made it necessary to update the evidence on the relevance of gender in audit fees. As a result of gender quota regulations enacted in a growing number of countries, companies are forced to appoint female directors to their boards (as well as their ACs) to meet gender quotas. This is contrary to the situation before these regulations were passed, where women were voluntarily appointed to these positions. Again, as some prior studies have shown, these gender quota regulations do condition the relationship between gender variables and audit fees and, consequently, updated evidence is welcome.
This study finds that the presence of female directors on the AC is negatively associated with audit fees, with a similar result observed for female CFOs. In the case of female directors, this result is driven by individuals with accounting expertise, whereas the presence of female directors with financial expertise alone is not associated with audit fees. On the other hand, results for audit partners and CEOs are negligible. However, there are some limitations that should be considered when interpreting these findings. First, the relatively small sample size of the study reduces the soundness of the analysis examining the importance of gender equality as a conditioning factor in the association between gender and audit fees. The second limitation derives from the meagre presence of women in some of the examined positions, most notably as CEOs. However, it should be noted that the accelerated incorporation of women into senior management positions over the last few years has diminished the importance of this problem in comparison with earlier studies.