Women still lag behind men when it comes to making partner at public firms, or earning an accounting doctorate, but looking behind those numbers, there's no question that the industry continues to move towards gender parity."I don't think there's any real one obstacle," said president of the American Society of Women Accountants Debbie L. Michael. She added, "Women are doing very well in accounting, and a lot of new women are entering the profession. There's always going to be issues of balancing work and life, but if anything, a lot of men are dealing with that balance now, too. I believe there will always be the issue of equitable pay, and men advancing sooner than women, but I do think that gap continues to narrow."

According to the annual survey of public firms by the American Institute of CPAs, the profession continues to move closer to gender parity by the numbers, with 44 percent of professional staff (CPAs, prospective CPAs and others with a similar amount of academic training) being female.

The survey, "The Supply of Accounting Graduates and the Demand for Public Accounting Recruits 2005," included statistics for the 2003-04 academic year. For each of the last five years, women have received 55 percent or more of the bachelor's and master's degrees issued in the field. Though women only made up 39 percent of those receiving accounting doctorates in 2004, they accounted for 43 percent of those enrolled in the program for the year.

Women made up 53 percent of new graduates hired by CPA firms in 2004, nearly identical to 2003, but down from a recent peak of 61 percent in 2002. Looking across all CPA firms, men still account for 81 percent of partners/owners. As in the past, the results show a much higher percentage of female partners or owners at firms with less than 10 members.

Leslie A. Murphy, a partner and member of the senior management team of Michigan-based Plante & Moran, as well as the incoming chair of the AICPA, mentioned that the cyclical, industry-wide accountant shortage that firms are now facing could end up meaning accelerated opportunities for younger workers. And pointing to the profession's turnover rate, she suggested that firms might need to begin focusing more on returns from an investment into their people.

"Maybe as accountants and auditors, after looking hard at numbers and internal controls throughout the day, we tend to concentrate on the differences, and focus on the weaknesses of workers," Murphy said. "I think the profession needs to start looking at what people do well and trying to competitively leverage those things. How do we tailor the job to areas where someone is ready to excel?"

Murphy said, "In a war for talent, you're going to win by being the most attractive employer, and designing a work schedule that works is going to be a big part of that."

Katharyn Thompson, a partner at RGL Forensic Accountants & Consultants who sits on the firm's governing board, has been involved in the field of forensic accounting for 20 years. She made partner 10 years ago, and had a small child at the time, making her one of the first to have to sort out what the title meant for things like maternity leave and the question of family demands.

She said that her specialization made things a little easier, because there's no over-the-top tax season work, and also pointed to the surrounding community as being one where there's a strong mix of stay-at-home, working and some-mix-of-the-two mothers.

As Baby Boomers continue working longer, she thinks that the industry, and the business world as a whole, will eventually move towards a model where working part-time is the norm.

Another way to the top

Another trend that has begun to emerge in recent years is the beginnings of an alternative track to partnership, or a similar stake in a firm, by way of the marketing department.

Thalia Zetlin, director of marketing for New York-based Berdon LLP, became one of the first in her field to be named a principal of the firm in 1999. Zetlin estimated that when she first started, women were doing 90 percent of the marketing - primarily as administrative assistants who were asked to prepare materials for managing partners. Today, she said that accounting marketing departments seem to be much closer to a 50-50 split.

Leisa Gill, director of marketing for Brentwood, Tenn.-based Lattimore, Black, Morgan & Cain PC, has been with the firm for nearly a dozen years, and was offered the chance to become a shareholder two years ago. "For the most part, it's still a very progressive and aggressive type of firm who's willing to give a part of themselves to someone who hasn't taken the traditional CPA route," she said. "But I think the industry's continuing to evolve.

Sally Glick, marketing manager for J.H. Cohn in New Jersey, is in the firm's partner-candidate program, and said that it's becoming more common for marketers and communications staff to have a seat at the table when decisions are being made.

While that route is certainly not as defined as the more traditional path to partner, the women said that more firms are beginning to buy in to the concept of non-billable business-development hours and marketing experts having a skill set that cannot be easily replicated.

"It's hard to change a culture that's built on billable hours," Glick said. "I don't know if I'd tell a woman who is 18 years old that marketing is ... an easier path to make partner at a CPA firm ... but someone who wants it and is willing to work hard can certainly get there."

Going it alone

The ASWA's Michael has been in the profession for more than 25 years, and self-employed for the past 16. "Technology has had a big effect on the profession," said Michael, who works out of her Billings, Mont., home office. "I think it's allowed women to have the option of working from home and not returning to the office feeling that they're a step behind."

Like the AICPA survey that showed women having a larger ownership stake in smaller firms, the latest available estimates from the U.S. Small Business Administration said that, based on 2002 data, women are increasing business ownership at a rate much faster than the national average.

"There's no question there's a lot of smaller firms and self-proprietors here," Michael said. "A lot of women have gone out and are doing it on their own."

Though not easy, for women currently in the field, starting their own firm may have been a simpler path than fighting the ingrained culture of firms and of an industry. But the women interviewed for this story say that females entering the field today have the benefit of not being the first - questions of things like maternity leave have long since been hashed out, and diversity has moved beyond being a buzzword to being a valued commodity.

Mary Furst, director of catastrophe services at RGL, made partner in 1990. "There are absolutely a lot of women coming into the field," she said. "But in the consulting arena, when I'm in client meetings, dealing with attorneys and insurance companies, it's still a very male-dominated room."

She added, "You have to be assertive, make sure you're in a position to expand your knowledge base and meet people. The challenges might be easier to overcome, but there are still challenges."

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