The representation of women within the leadership of public accounting firms is too low, according to Jeanette Franzel, a member of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board.

In a speech earlier this month at the Eighth Annual Washington Women Speak conference in Washington, D.C., Franzel pointed out that despite the fact that women have represented about 50 percent of new CPAs in the accounting profession for the past 20 years, women account for only 19 percent of partners in CPA firms nationwide.

In CPA firms with 50 staff members or more, women make up only 17 percent of partners. However, this is actually an improvement since 2010, when women accounted for 15 percent of partners at firms of that size, she noted.

Many women leave public accounting firms at the senior staff and manager level for careers in industry or entrepreneurship, effectively “evaporating” from the partnership pipeline at accounting firms, according to the American Society of Women Accountants and American Woman’s Society of CPAs Accounting MOVE Project.

“With women comprising 51 percent of managers within the firms, there are many highly qualified women in the pipeline who are positioned to move into top leadership positions,” said Franzel. “Yet we need to see more progress and firms must demonstrate results in the near term.”

She pointed out that the lack of gender diversity is a concern throughout corporate America, citing Sheryl Sandberg’s best-selling book “Lean In.” Franzel noted that the issue is much larger than retaining women, and diagnosing the reasons that women leave accounting firms in such high numbers will accomplish several things, including helping firms to better address the barriers and problems faced by women in their organizations, take stock of their diversity and human capital practices more generally, and better understand the connection between effective talent management and their specialized gatekeeper role in the capital markets.

“Lately, we’ve heard lots of advice about ‘leaning in,’ said Franzel. “Clearly, individuals need to take charge of developing their skills and pursuing opportunities. But I do not accept the notion that the current lack of women as partners and top leaders in accounting firms is due to women not ‘leaning in.’ With the low percentages of women in top leadership positions, it is fair to conclude that structural and organizational problems in the firms, often combined with other economic and societal pressures, have led to this outcome.”

Along with the “leaning in” debate is another view that women are “selecting out” of pursuing top management positions at the firms, Franzel observed.

“In reality, we need to drill down to the root causes of these choices and analyze why such decisions may be the most rational under current circumstances,” she said. “For instance, if women and other talented professionals are leaving public accounting because of conditions such as excessive hours, uncontrollable schedules, unwieldy travel schedules and lack of viable career paths that are compatible with other life activities, then the solutions to these problems need to be structural and organizational.”

Significant progress will not occur unless such problems are addressed, Franzel added, and that requires innovative thinking and changes in how firms have traditionally conducted business and managed their people.

“I was happy to see one firm leader publicly state that ‘business leaders have a responsibility to lean in as well.’ He also went on to include minorities in the discussion and acknowledged that women and minorities cannot solve the leadership gap by themselves,” said Franzel. “This gets to the heart of how firms manage their most valuable resources—all of their people. If the profession can address the organizational and structural problems that are causing women to leave accounting firms, then the firms’ ability to retain top talent will improve vastly.”

Franzel argued that the business case for public accounting firms to invest in and focus on the retention and development of female leaders is clear, and the benefits to firms also extend to retaining talented professionals of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. She cited research from the American Institute of CPAs indicating that organizations with diverse leadership teams outperform those with homogeneous leadership teams.

“The ability to retain and develop top talent and achieve diversity in leadership ranks today is imperative to better positioning firms for the future,” said Franzel. “Firms that deal seriously with these issues also will have the advantage of increased access to larger talent pools. The complexity of auditing—and the vast responsibilities of firms in providing assurance over financial reporting for the benefit of investors and the markets—requires harnessing the talents and energies of a diverse workforce. I look forward to working constructively with the firms and the profession, as a whole, on advancing progress in this area.”