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The state of women in the accounting profession

March 8, 2012

Progression in some markets, lack of visibility in others

The status of female professionals within public accounting firms began to attract attention as a business issue in countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada in the early 1990s. The progress achieved in these countries over the last 20 years led to a better consideration for work/life balance which included increased efforts to ease the transition between maternity leave and the return to the work place.

In some cases, the efforts led to better awareness of the business impact of this issue. These countries now recognize a broader need that still includes work/life balance, but also the need for skill development, advocacy and visibility of female leaders as critical barriers to their progression.

In the U.S., Canada and the U.K., the AICPA, CICA and ICAEW have programs aimed at educating and supporting firms and individuals regarding the progression of women in the profession. All efforts mention the sustainability of the profession as a foundational reason for investing in initiatives.

The heated competition for the best talent that characterized the profession before the global recession reinforced this trend by motivating accounting firms in the larger, economically developed countries to take notice of high turnover and low progression of experienced women and to organize initiatives aimed at ensuring all top talent was succeeding in the firms. These efforts often were a catalyst to help the predominantly male leadership teams understand the business case supporting an investment in the retention and development of women.

Across nearly all regions of the world, it is now common for more than half of accounting firm new hires to be women. Some firms even report impressive ratios that exceed 70 percent! Yet today, women only account for 5 to 20 percent of partners in CPA firms in economically developed countries and below 5 percent in many of the less developed countries.

Lack of progress of women towards leadership positions remains the focus in countries that have initiatives to promote women, while the question of the presence of women in the profession still suffers from a lack of visibility in other countries, therefore not engaging consideration or investment by national and professional entities.

Why are there fewer female than male partners?

There are three primary reasons why women either slow in progression or leave accounting firms in greater numbers than their male counterparts:

1. The most obvious and often-discussed reason is a conflict between responsibilities outside of work and the intense time commitment that has historically been required to continue to progress in accounting firms. Although the role of men in many societies is changing to include more commitment to family, women generally still have greater responsibilities outside of work that they find incompatible with current firm and professional norms.

2. The second reason is related to a lack of visibility that has two parts to it. There are not enough female role models and women leaders are often not as visible as male leaders. The impact of lack of visibility is a very significant and underestimated part of the problem. Without role models to demonstrate important aspects of professional development such as work/life integration, leadership styles and business development approaches, women in the profession often limit their aspirations and/or conclude they cannot succeed because they do not feel they can identify with the style and approach of the current masculine models.

3. The third reason is related to career navigation and guidance. For a number of very tangible reasons many women do not have the same access to career development and advocacy relationships with senior leaders in the firm as their male counterparts. For instance, ambition seems to be harder for women to express as competitive behaviors tend to be seen as more appropriate for men than for women. Interwoven with the above issues or barriers are cultural aspects that organizations should address as well as critical areas of skill building and career awareness that women need access to.

How does this gap impact accounting firms?

The lack of progress of women in the accounting profession is a business issue that has the power to impact the sustainability of firms if targeted efforts to increase retention and development are not pursued. The business concerns impacted by the lack of progression of 50 percent or more of the current talent pool include:

  • Sustainable growth models
  • Sustainable succession planning models
  • Viable exit strategies
  • Bottom line cost of the loss or stagnation of high potential talent
  • Increased need for gender diversity that mirrors the talent pool and shifting marketplace
  • Increased need for gender diversity at the leadership level to broaden leadership models

Beyond the obvious economic reasons that should push firms to retain experienced women professionals, accounting firms in many countries have yet to broaden their talent development and retention programs so that experienced women have more to gain by committing to a long-term career than they have to lose. These firms have yet to learn that there is a high cost, in terms of talent drain, to not assuring that talented women are succeeding at the same rate as men.

What can the profession do?

No matter the country or culture in which an accounting firm operates, if a significant percentage of its new hires are women, there will be fundamental actions that it will have to take to avoid facing the economic issues incurred if those women leave or do not continue to develop:

1.    Take into consideration the business case issues related to the lack of progression of 50 percent of its talents.

2.    Encourage the profession and individual firms to investigate their own business case, including:

  • Costs incurred by the loss or stagnation of a high percentage of the experienced women that the firm has developed for several years;
  • Challenges for firms that aspire to substantial growth and to retain a common culture. These firms will have to ensure that experienced, talented women (as well as men) develop into experienced leaders with an enterprise wide perspective to keep pace with and support firm growth;
  • Leadership succession issues, which force many accounting firms to sell, and are increased in severity if the firm continually loses its best and most talented women;
  • Potential loss of entry into new markets as the market shifts to represent new demographics

3.    Understand that the important question is when and how firms will implement programs such as flexible work arrangements, cultura- awareness raising, mentoring and advocacy, not if it will.

4.    Encourage firms to look closely at the potential barriers as outlined above: lack of visibility of female role models, work/life integration, lack of access to ensure that developmental and advocacy experiences supporting successful career navigation are provided.

Therefore, I would like to invite you to ask yourself these questions:

  • How much visibility is there to this topic (i.e., of the importance of accounting firms developing and retaining experienced women professionals) in your market?
  • Has your firm documented its business case for engaging in a strategic effort to retain and develop female talent?
  • Is your firm actively engaged in broadening its talent recruiting, training, development, and retention programs in order to appeal to and retain experienced women professionals?

Frank Arford is the CEO of Crowe Horwath International. Mary L Bennett served as a partner for ten years with Crowe Horwath, where she led practice areas, office locations and large engagements consulting with clients primarily in financial services risk management.  Mary is an expert in women’s leadership initiatives, diversity & inclusiveness programs, succession Planning, and leadership development, and now provides consulting services to public accounting firms internationally.

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