Sandra Wiley
Sandra Wiley

Women still face uphill climb

Firms should do more to improve diversity at the partner level.

November 15, 2012
by Sandra Wiley

At a recent accounting association meeting, I facilitated an open, and eye-opening, discussion about the challenges firms face in retaining, promoting, and rewarding female talent. The attendees at the session, all partners in their firms, revealed in an informal, on-site survey that:

  • 60% of their employees were women;
  • 50% of their managers were women;
  • 8% of their partners were women.

The findings, while not scientific, do provide interesting comparisons with the percentages of women at different levels in the U.S. workforce. An analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data by Catalyst Inc., a nonprofit membership organization dedicated to expanding opportunities for women and business, found that women in 2011 constituted 46.6% of the U.S. workforce and held 51.4% of “managerial, professional, and related positions.” A separate Catalyst study found that women held 14.1% of U.S. executive officer positions.

The numbers seem to show that women are underrepresented at the top levels of public accounting firms, a conclusion that was readily accepted among those who attended the session I facilitated at the accounting association meeting. It’s interesting to note that men constituted 80% of the audience.

The partners who were the most vocal during the discussion acknowledged they need to usher more women into the upper ranks of their firms, but these leaders expressed frustration in understanding how to make that happen. The impression I got from the audience was, “OK, we understand that there’s a problem, but we need concrete strategies that will help us make progress.” Here are some steps we can take to encourage the promotion of women in the accounting profession.

1. Firms must prioritize the development of women leaders.

Firms that want to develop more female leaders need to demonstrate a commitment to that goal by making the advancement of women an integrated part of their overall career-development strategy. For instance, if a firm wants to provide women with formal mentors, the leadership team should write that goal into the annual strategic plan.

In addition, each firm should create a task force devoted to discussing the reasons women are not being retained and promoted. The task force should consist of a mix of men and women from all levels of the firm, including the partner group. Firm leadership should ensure that the task force meetings offer a safe forum for open communication without fear of retribution. While group members should identify problems, this must not devolve into a complaint committee. Instead, the task force must be dedicated to developing initiatives that will catapult the firm to a higher level and transform the look of the leadership group over time.

2. Firms should encourage women to find, act as mentors.

Women in accounting should seek mentors for guidance and support. Ideally, the mentors would come from within the firm, but if your firm has a limited number of women who can serve as mentors, encourage your best female talent to find their connections in other professional businesses. A female lawyer or business owner who is a client or friend of the firm can be a tremendous asset. At the same time, make sure to provide encouragement and support for women in your firm to serve as mentors.

Women with extensive support systems are better positioned for recognition and advancement. Men can be vital members of the support network, especially if they make the effort to understand the unique challenges that women face in pursuing leadership positions. Male leaders at the firm can help top talent, male and female, navigate the path to partner.

3. Firms should provide opportunities for women to gather, be heard.

Because there are so few women in the executive suite at CPA firms, their ideas and concerns often don’t reach the ears of the firms’ leaders. To amplify the voices of female CPAs, firms should organize events and seminars that allow women to gather and discuss business strategies and career development. Ideas generated at the events should be shared with the firm leadership.

Managing partners should choose an event leader who has strong communication, listening, and organizational skills and who will ensure that ideas generated at these meetings are shared with the firm’s leadership team. The events should allow women in the firm to bond with and support one another on personal and professional levels. The events can be informal, with the group meeting at lunch or after hours, but the goal of empowering women must be pursued in a professional and positive manner.

If a firm fails to provide collaborative opportunities for its female employees, I encourage those women to organize their own events. By working together to solve specific business issues, women can improve their working lives and add value to their organizations. The ideas generated from such events must align with the firm’s overall strategy. Otherwise, firm leadership may take a negative stance toward these gatherings.

4. Women must learn the art of self-promotion.

Most of the women that I meet are, or have the ability to be, extremely effective leaders, but they often are not good at drawing attention to their achievements. Women should not assume their peers and managers know about their accomplishments. Women must make a conscious effort to name and claim the work they do. In a sometimes cutthroat firm environment, women must not worry about sounding too boastful. To compete with male co-workers, they must worry only about taking credit where credit is due.

Are you feeling a little snarky right now? Or are you thinking something like, “What about the young men in our firm?” or “Women don’t seem to be interested” in making partner. Maybe you are repeating the complaint commonly made about young CPAs: “They don’t want to work the hours.”

Take a moment to reflect on those statements and honestly answer the following question: “Is our firm doing enough to support the development of young CPAs and, in particular, young female talent?” All progress begins with the truth, and sometimes the truth is hard to embrace. I encourage you to look at your firm and ask the hard questions—and then take action.

Rate this article 5 (excellent) to 1 (poor). Send your responses here.

Sandra Wiley is COO of Boomer Consulting in Manhattan, Kan., and is a popular speaker who addresses topics such as team building, talent development, and performance improvement.