Elaine Weiss has served as president and chief executive of the Illinois CPA Society, Illinois CPA Foundation and CPAs for the Public Interest since 2002. Prior to coming aboard the ICPAS, she served as associate executive director of the American Bar Association.
She also held the post of regional director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Recently, she spoke to WebCPA on the ICPAS initiatives, the progress of women in accounting and legislation that could potentially affect the profession.
I know the Illinois CPA Society has been doing a lot of work in the financial literacy space. What initiatives are on your radar screen for the upcoming year?
We’re continuing with our financial literacy initiatives that were tremendously successful over the past year. We’ll continue to visit college campuses with our “Real World Survival: Having a Ball on a Budget,” program, taught by recent grads from the Society’s Young Professionals Group on how college students and soon-to-be-young professionals can effectively manage their money in the real world. We’ve also developed PowerPoint presentations on three life-stage financial literacy topics: college, retirement and surviving divorce. Our Center for Corporate Financial Leadership continues to expand its services to our Business & Industry membership segment through executive education programs, specialized e-newsletters and networking breakfast series. We’re also continuing to develop creative and focused outreach initiatives to attract and retain accounting students and young professionals.
What services and benefits do you think Illinois CPAs are going to be in search of in
The role of CPAs is shifting. Over the past few decades, CPAs have expanded beyond traditional accounting and tax services to a role in which they now deliver a range of consulting services. They play a key role when it comes to bottom-line profits, strategy and vision, and day-to-day operations. As a result it’s increasingly important for CPAs to stay up-to-date on new technologies and professional issues. In the future, CPAs are going to need more Web-based information, education, knowledge resources and networking communities — without abandoning the human element and important relationship management skills – to help deliver timely solutions and advice and remain competitive and profitable.
Additionally, as the profession continues to change so do the boundaries that once confined us geographically. Globalization continues to change and evolve the business landscape. To an increasing degree, international financial reporting standards are impacting the way we do business in the U.S. and on a local level.
The society recently released its annual survey of Illinois women working in the profession. Why is that an area you’ve chosen to focus on?
It’s been amazing to see the progress women have made in the accounting profession, yet it’s clear that there is work left to be done. Most of the overt barriers for women have disappeared, but subtle barriers can still exist and need to be monitored and addressed. Our women leaders within the ICPAS were the driving force in making sure our organization continues to focus on this area.
The Illinois CPA Society’s Accounting Women Survey provides an ongoing tool to assess the status of women CPAs in the profession, calls greater attention to retention and promotion practices of women in the workplace, and serves as a good benchmark for future generations.
Over the past few years, it seems a lot of the results — especially when it comes to women in leadership positions -- have been moving in a positive direction. What could happen to move that needle even faster?
Almost everyone today has developed beautifully written workplace policies that address family leave, part-time work and flexible schedules. However, a beautifully written policy isn’t worth the electronic paper it’s printed on if there’s no support from the top management and there are not veteran women left in the workplace to demonstrate the success of these policies to the next generation of professional women coming up through the ranks. The needle is moving faster now because, luckily, so many more men are getting involved with family duties, and generationally, younger men are also seeking a healthier work-life balance. Also, the profession as a whole must continue to push forward and get workplaces to regularly question whether enough is being done to encourage women to remain in the CPA profession.
What else struck you about this year’s survey results?
How long it’s going to take in order for women to achieve complete equality. Women make up nearly half of the profession, yet only 13 percent are in leadership positions. Although this number has risen steadily over the past few years, it is not increasing fast enough. This goes to show that the proportion of women accountants holding firm-wide leadership positions remains far less than the overall female presence in the industry. I’ve always been a believer that slow and steady wins the race, but I would love to be able to stand up and cheer our accomplishments of equality while I’m still able to stand without the need of a walker to do so.
Your background is in law (J.D. from George Washington University) and journalism (B.S. from Northwestern University). Does any of that training give you additional perspective when it comes to the scandals and regulatory debates that surround the accounting profession?
My legal background provides a good basis for understanding how pending legislation and various regulatory debates may potentially affect our members and the profession. Understanding what the law says helps in advancing the Society’s legislative policy and in understanding some of the legal challenges that our profession is encountering these days. My journalism background helps me to understand how the media will frame some of these issues and that assists me in developing the right message for both the public and policymakers in responding to media coverage of our issues.
Is there any legislation on the horizon, particularly at the state level, that you’re keeping a close eye on?
First, we’ve been focused on mobility legislation for the CPA profession. The Illinois Society just succeeded in passing mobility legislation through our state legislature and our mobility bill now is awaiting the signature of our governor. Working on this issue within our state and in collaboration with other state societies around the country has been our top legislative priority this year.
Second, we are closely monitoring the legislation now before the Connecticut State Senate that would give its state comptroller the legal authority to establish Generally Accepted Accounting Principles for the state’s financials. This would mean the state could bypass the Governmental Accounting Standards Board– the organization who establishes and improves standards of financial accounting and reporting for the U.S. state and local governments. Due to Enron and other high-profile corporate scandals in recent years, we need to continually work to strengthen oversight of the profession and bolster public confidence in CPAs, and this could potentially affect the whole profession by compromising much of what we have worked towards to help regain public trust and government accountability.
Anything else you’d like to add?
It remains a very interesting time to be part of the CPA profession. The pipeline is strong, but we need to remain vigilant in making sure these new accounting grads go on to pass the CPA exam.
As a profession, we need to understand the importance of serving the many different constituencies that now constitute the CPA profession – different programs and services are needed and we must remain responsive in order to remain relevant. And finally, we need to keep working to embrace some of the generational differences we see in the workplace. As a Baby Boomer I don’t always like some of these differences, but if all of us Baby Boomers hope to retire someday, we need to be flexible in our collaboration with the Generation X and Yers who will be the ones to inherit our corner offices – even if it turns out to be a virtual corner office that actually exists in their homes.
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