AAFCPAs' 'Women's Opportunity Network' gives female leaders a pathway

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Among the diversity gaps in the accounting profession, female representation at the leadership level looms large. Women's track to seniority can be more difficult, with factors such as family lives and educational opportunities as potential roadblocks. But Massachusetts firm Alexander Aronson Finning CPAs, or AAFCPAs, has decided to take these leadership matters in their own hands.

Formed in 2011, the firm's Women's Opportunity Network (WON) serves as a forum for the challenges women face in the workplace, as well as acting as an advocacy group to help educate and bring awareness of these issues to others.

AAFCPAs co-managing partner Carla McCall is the creator of the WON program. She explains that at the heart of the program is a desire to keep working women's lives professionally and domestically balanced, which can sometimes hinder one's chances at leadership positions. "Certainly, all employees value work/life balance, but finding it can be incredibly tricky for women going through major life milestones at the same time their careers are gaining momentum," she said. "The dilemma most women face is finding a way to take big steps on their career paths while also providing adequate attention to children, spouse, aging parents, a home, or advancements in their education."

WON's goals are twofold: to find women more leadership paths in their careers, and to make these paths more aware to other professionals in order to facilitate more equal leadership.

“We are proactively proposing solutions to attract and retain women in leadership positions, and we are committed to maintaining this momentum with consistent, measurable progress," McCall said. "AAFCPAs established a firm-wide dialogue related to the business case for advancing women in the profession, and more flexibility in the way we work."

WON holds a slew of activities to bring people together, ranging from networking training and firm-wide work-life panels, to guest speakers, and social activities. Their Women's Initiative Roundtables also look to discuss various career issues such as personal advancement, retention issues, and flexible work arrangements. More than anything, these activities help keep discussion of gender issues a constant.

“It is important for leadership to initiate and maintain a dialogue within the ranks of the firm in order to change the way team members think (both male and female) from the top, down," McCall said. "Firms must foster a culture that helps women prepare for, and stay ahead of emerging work/life conflicts. Women must be allowed to chart their own career path -- a path that will not match the traditional one forged by a historically male-dominated profession and a path that was previously hyper-focused on billable hours."

And the numbers don't lie: McCall reports that the firm has increased their number of female leaders by 53 percent, with female leadership in the firm (including partners, directors, and managers) currently at 48 percent, up from 25 percent when WON was first initiated. (For comparison, at the average CPA firm, women represent 24 percent of the leadership.)

“I was recently promoted to manager at AAFCPAs, and welcomed my first child not long after. The WON, and the collaborative strategies it fosters, has allowed me to better anticipate work/life conflicts, and stay on a leadership track while also devoting precious time to my home life,” said Tracy LeMaire. “I feel that AAFCPAs has raised the bar for CPA firms advancing women into top leadership.”

More perspectives and opinions has been another byproduct of WON, which McCall feels is an added benefit to the firm's future. “The diversity we have at AAFCPAs – by age, race, nationality, religion, and gender – allows us to leverage the widest possible range of views and experiences, find new ways to solve old problems, and develop strategies to tackle the evolution of the profession," she added. "We value the differences in people, and the demographic make-up of our personnel speaks to our initiative."

According to McCall, firms interested in developing similar programs would absolutely need to measure their progress and keep their efforts consistent. “I believe other firms should develop a solid, and documented game plan that includes a strategy for broadening the diversity of their talent pool," she said. "This could be creating a concrete initiative, or encouraging staff members/partners to broaden their knowledge on the importance of diversity within a workplace. Workshops, lectures, and networking are all good places to start. Regular team e-mails featuring interesting articles on the topic are also something I found useful.The clients we serve are crossing geographic borders and being led by culturally diverse teams. Diversity initiatives are critical to the success of professional services firms today and as they advance toward the future."

But more than anything, a desire to change is the foundation of any significant action across the profession.

"Ideally, other accounting firms will follow suit, and it only takes one loud voice to start a movement,“ McCall said.

For more on AAFCPAs and the WON program, head to the firm's site here.

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