Mary Cheaney, CPA
Mary Cheaney

You’ve come a long way, Virginia

Women CPAs share what they encountered on the way to success.

August 16, 2012
by Mary Cheaney, CPA

Shortly after the launch of the LinkedIn network for the AICPA Women’s Initiative Executive Committee (WIEC), Linda Keith, CPA, posed a simple question: “Any good stories about way back when in the profession?” Four months and 146 posts later it was obvious that women CPAs have a history that may still be unfolding. That said, looking back provides an opportunity to congratulate successes and highlight career flexibility, as well as to demonstrate evolution.

Many women CPAs shared their war stories, each concluding with achieving their goal of becoming a CPA. There were many instances of the being the “first” or among the first group of women hired in their geographic area, specialty, or firm. And these trailblazers went on not only to succeed, but also become leaders in their firms, state societies, companies, and communities. This success is celebrated by their visibility within the profession as leaders and role models, their involvement within their communities as board members, and their balance in their personal lives with families and other pursuits.

The past

The history of women in the CPA profession starts long before any of the stories shared on this platform. From the first woman CPA in the U.S.—Christine Ross in 1899—to the formation of a group of women to lobby for the right to become a CPA in the 1930s, to affirmative action in the 1960s, women’s pursuit of a CPA career has been a path fraught with challenge. Just to gain the right to sit for the exam required legislative action in more than 50% of the states. Federal affirmative action policy, instituted in 1961 to ensure equal employment opportunity, was not expanded to include women until 1967. The milestones our predecessors made against immense odds became the foundation on which we have carried on their dreams. In 2008, the American Woman’s Society of CPAs (AWSCPA) compiled a history of women pioneers in this area to celebrate how much progress has been made. Reading their stories was illuminating and inspiring and in some ways not that much different than what the LinkedIn exchange offered.

The war stories related in this exchange only dated back to the 1970s and went through the 1990s. Most related stories about firm and/or company hiring practices, work assignments, promotion policies, employee benefits, and dress codes. They shared interview questions being posed to women candidates during this time that included marriage plans, family planning, marital relations, and grooming. Almost all the women shared stories of being told that their firm would never hire women CPAs because clients would be offended or the firm did not want to spend the resources on training someone who was only going to “leave anyway” when she got pregnant. Ann Gerlitz, CPA, related how her firm packed up her office and personal items while she was on maternity leave in anticipation of her not returning. Not only did she return, but she received an  apology from the firm and went on to work there for several more years.

A couple of stories related to changing societal norms and restrictions relative to social barriers left over from a more segregated time. Stories were reported about partners who were proven wrong after they declared their clients would never accept a woman working on their account and even a story of a partner who called the client to make sure it was OK to bring along a female staff person. Many women spoke about being discriminated on out-of-town assignments because their colleagues’ wives would be upset. And there were the classic stories from the women who could not attend client meetings because they were held at men’s-only sites, such as a business club, a golf course, or even at a fishing retreat.

Some of the funniest stories were about wardrobe and shoes. Many in the group happily reminisced (with cyber-moans) over wearing scarf bows with their solid blue, gray, or black two-piece suits. This was the acknowledged uniform of the age in an attempt to “be like the boys.” One story that went a little further back in time involved hats and gloves as required attire. Following the conversation string, you could feel everyone’s joy in the emancipation from skirts only (no pants?), the closed-in, low-heeled black pump, and the dreaded pantyhose. Freedom comes in many forms.

The present

Happily, many of those issues have been eliminated or simply evolved as the workforce has become more evenly balanced. Many of the national firms were highlighted as early trailblazers in modernizing their firm cultures, training not only their partners, but also their clients, and adopting proactive programs for promotion. Conversely, some issues remain, often stemming from unintentional bias or simply doing things the way they’ve always been done.

One of the best items gained from the recent exchange was the demonstration of our flexibility as women. The adage of making lemonade from lemons was a common theme. When encountering an obstacle, either professionally or personally, many respondents shared how they creatively resolved their issues by diverting their path. Many found new career opportunities as controllers and CFOs, while others catapulted into leadership roles because they used well-developed communication skills acquired from the experience. Two of these women (Bea Nahon and Martha Hultzman) are now state society chairs (or past chairs), many are managing partners in their firms, and several are successful (non-CPA) business owners. It is exactly this ability to adapt, convert, and create that proves a woman’s role in the future of the CPA profession.

The anticipated future

In retrospect, having a successful career as a CPA and managing a family seemed to be the problem those former employers anticipated. Truly, the value women brought to the profession won out in the end. Many firms today embrace the overall life integration (not balance) for all of their employees and partners, offering such programs as part time, flex-time, flex-place, off-ramping, and sabbaticals for personal pursuits. There were even mentions of men who had taken advantage of expanded family leave policies.

The WIEC is proud of each of the participants in this exchange and thanks Linda Keith for posting the initial question, and Merrill Bailey, Ann Gerlitz, Martha Hultzman, Bea Nahon, Jane Obert, and Robbie Paul, just to name a few, for keeping the dialogue circulating and entertaining. And while we acknowledge women have made great strides over the years, we feel there remain less obvious, but just as important, challenges to engage our attention for the future. And we invite you to join us in taking on these challenges. Become involved with the committee as a volunteer, be a contributing author on the website, or join us in a webcast as a speaker to share your knowledge and expertise with other women on the same path you have chosen. We also hope to see you at the Women’s Global Leadership Summit in Boston in October.

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Mary Cheaney, CPA, is a practicing CPA with an office in North Miami Beach, Fla. She has more than 30 years of experience in taxation and specializes in tax planning and real estate and partnership compliance. She is a former national president of American Woman’s Society of CPAs.