While women have made great strides, they still face challenges in their everyday work environment. One of the biggest challenges that women face is achieving equal opportunities despite roadblocks such as the boys' club or the glass ceiling in terms of salaries and promotions. Additionally, women are often faced with exclusion from informal business networks, and suffer from gender-based stereotypes and a lack of role models.Despite these issues, women are climbing to the top of the financial profession one step at a time. In fact, a recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics said that 62 percent of people who worked in the accounting field last year were women, and the American Institute of CPAs reports that half of its new membership is female.

Battling gender bias

While the majority of women working in finance are happy with their jobs, some still feel that discriminatory behaviors and practices exist. Catalyst, a nonprofit research and advisory organization for women in business, recently surveyed 482 women and found that 65 percent feel that they have to work harder than men to get the same rewards, while 51 percent say that they get paid less than their male counterparts.

In December 2005, the AICPA reported that women are more likely than men to leave an organization to develop new skills or advance to a new level; however, they feel that they are less likely to be offered a higher salary in their new position.

Finance is known as traditionally male-dominated, and unfortunately, this mindset still exists in some circles today. The boys' club mentality shows that there is still a reluctance to give a woman the same or appropriate opportunities given to a man. To combat this gender bias, companies have had to work hard to fight gender inequality and stereotyping.

Some measures include:

* Holding workshops and classes to teach equality. In an effort to combat gender discrimination and bias in the workplace, some companies hold regular workshops and classes to teach executives how to equalize decisions regarding males and females on the same level.

* Encouraging equal opportunities. There are many possibilities for travel and promotion in the world of finance. It is important to encourage equal opportunities for both sexes, regardless of whether or not they have children.

* Equal compensation. One of the major barriers that women face in the profession is not being equally compensated versus their male counterparts. It is important to offer competitive salaries and benefits to all employees, regardless of gender.

* Incorporating more workplace flexibility. Due to the rising number of high-level female financial executives and their dual roles as employees and mothers, many companies have instituted and allowed for flexible schedules, professional networks and childcare support initiatives to keep turnover rates down and employee satisfaction high.

Banding together

Women have also joined forces to create organizations where women in finance can go to speak with their peers about their profession and career goals, as well as to learn how to succeed in the workplace when faced with gender bias, stereotyping and glass ceilings.

Two widely recognized associations are the Financial Women's Association and the American Society of Women Accountants. These organizations are well-known for providing personal and professional support, local and national business contacts, a relocation and job referral network, leadership opportunities, and business management skills development.

The FWA brings together high-achieving professionals from every sector of the financial world. Established in 1956 and with more than 1,100 members worldwide, the FWA is dedicated to developing future leaders, enhancing the role of women in finance and investing in the community.

The ASWA consists of women employed in a variety of accounting and finance functions. Founded in 1938, it has over 100 chapters in the U.S., with 6,000 members. The common purpose of the ASWA is to enable women in all fields of accounting and finance to achieve their personal, professional and economic potential, and to contribute to the future development of the profession.

"Joining an organization allows you to expand your network outside of your company and industry," said Roseanne Sweeney, of the FWA's board of directors and a senior consultant at Nachman Hays Brownstein Inc. "It's another outlet for you to broaden your reach, learn new skills and allow you to meet phenomenal, high-achieving women."

Molding the workplace

As women advance, both in the workplace and the financial world, they find ways to promote change for improving their work environment and opportunities. Women who share the dual roles of employee and mother fight to maintain successful, fast-paced careers while raising families and being supportive at home. They struggle to prove that they can "have it all" in terms of professional and personal success by maintaining a healthy balance and flexible benefits at work.

"Twenty years ago, women in senior leadership positions sacrificed almost everything to get there," said Bo Young Lee, director of advisory services at Catalyst. "You no longer see that. There's more insistence on work/life balance."

Women have changed the way work gets done, and the work/life balance that women have fought for is benefiting men as the gender roles in the home begin to equalize. Today, male chief financial officers are telecommuting, leaving the office early for parental obligations and enjoying more flexible work schedules. Allowing employees to telecommute and have more flexible schedules also helps organizations retain top talent, because it keeps workers satisfied.

Mentoring tomorrow

In addition to trying to break through the glass ceiling and overcome gender bias, one of the most common barriers for women succeeding in finance is a lack of mentors. Some advice for women pursuing careers in finance:

* Educate yourself. Get an MBA and as many professional credentials as you can. Women need to stay ahead of the game in terms of education and credentials, as they are under more scrutiny in this field than men.

* Join a mentoring program or a financial association for women. These were founded to provide resources and guidance for women in the finance profession. Use them to your advantage.

* Develop negotiation skills. A key skill for financial professionals lies in the ability to negotiate. Many firms are actively engaged in merger and acquisition strategies, and require employees who can evaluate possible partners and negotiate transactions.

* Thoughtfulness counts. Finance positions are not what they used to be. Computers and technology do most of the counting, while finance professionals interpret the results. The demand for smart, communicative, thoughtful people is increasingly evident in the profession.

* Be a team player. Whether you are at the bottom or the top of a company, being a team player and working well with others in a variety of situations is absolutely critical.

* Keep the big picture in mind. You may face gender bias along the way, but the key is to maintain your focus and concentrate on the needs of your organization. You will not only earn the respect of your clients, but also of your colleagues, who will see how serious you are about your position and career.

* Work/life balance. If you are having difficulty achieving a work/life balance, ask your employer how they handle this issue. Also, consider looking into smaller companies, as there is not as much gender bias around having a career and wanting to be a mother.

* Work hard - and smart. You are under more scrutiny as a woman in the field. Do your research, be as thoughtful as you possibly can and always put your best foot forward. It's a sure-fire way to succeed.

Moving up in the world

A woman's climb to success is going to be more challenging than a man's. Yet women continue to make strides every day, from fighting for equal opportunities and working hard, to balancing work and life and maintaining their value systems.

As women continue to work hard and smart for clients and superiors, they will not only make advances for their companies and the profession as a whole, but for women in business everywhere.

Janette Marx is senior vice president, East Coast, at Ajilon Professional Staffing, where she oversees hiring, training, developing and retaining internal staff, as well as strategic planning.

Register or login for access to this item and much more

All Accounting Today content is archived after seven days.

Community members receive:
  • All recent and archived articles
  • Conference offers and updates
  • A full menu of enewsletter options
  • Web seminars, white papers, ebooks

Don't have an account? Register for Free Unlimited Access