Females are substantially underrepresented compared to males as accounting firm partners, according to a new academic study that found only 17 percent of audit partners with U.S. audit clients are women.

In major metropolitan areas such as San Jose, Calif., and Washington, D.C., the figure is closer to 10 percent.

The analysis comes from researchers at Bentley University, the University of Colorado Denver and Northeastern University. They examined data made possible by a recent rule from the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board requiring accounting firms to disclose the names of the lead engagement partner in charge of each public company audit.

Female audit partner ratios

Many accounting firms have made advances in their gender equality efforts, with both Deloitte and KPMG naming female CEOs in recent years, although progress has mostly been limited to the lower ranks, according to the researchers.

The Big Four accounting firms—PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte, Ernst & Young, and KPMG—all report having more than 40 percent female employees, but the new data found that in the Big Four firms only 19 percent of audit partners are women, based on data on lead engagement partners who signed the PCAOB's new Form AP. PwC had the highest representation of women audit partners (22 percent) and KPMG the lowest among the Big Four (15.3 percent). At other auditing firms outside the Big Four, the representation of women as partners was even lower, at 15 percent.

The research also found that within major metropolitan areas, female audit partners were most common in Minneapolis (32 percent), Los Angeles (24.1 percent), Boston (22.5 percent), and New York City (21.7 percent). Female audit partners were least common in San Jose (9.7 percent), Washington, D.C. (10.9 percent), Atlanta (11.6 percent) and Philadelphia (12.2 percent).

While the current representation of women at the partner level is relatively small, some firms have made progress in promoting qualified female talent. In 2015, Deloitte named its first female CEO, Cathy Engelbert, and KPMG named Lynn Doughtie as its first female CEO later that year. In 2016, PwC’s newly inducted audit partner class was 30 percent female.

The research was conducted by Bentley University Rhodes Professor of Accounting Rani Hoitash, Professor Jenna Burke of the University of Colorado Denver, and Professor Gary Gregg and research fellow Udi Hoitash of Northeastern University.

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Michael Cohn

Michael Cohn

Michael Cohn, editor-in-chief of AccountingToday.com, has been covering business and technology for a variety of publications since 1985.