'Women Rule the Day," read the headline in USA Today's Olympic Sports Section on August 9. U.S. women dominated in London and overshadowed their male counterparts. A few weeks earlier, we read about Marissa Mayer, who was Google's first female engineer and its 20th employee when she joined the company in 1999. She was named Yahoo!'s chief executive officer. The recent news may have further broken the glass ceiling in Silicon Valley and changed our perceptions about women athletes.

Why has the U.S. developed such outstanding women leaders across the board and yet, when it comes to the accounting profession, there is a significant gap?

He said: The profession still lags behind in having powerful, successful women managing partners and leaders. What will it take to move more women into these leadership roles? Is it the profession, or the women who enter the profession? While most women (and most men) can't be a Marissa Mayer (she has degrees in artificial intelligence from Stanford, sits on the Wal-Mart board, lives in a $5 million penthouse, and is pregnant while running Yahoo!), it seems that it is hard to find women like Marissa in the accounting profession. Where are the women leaders?

She said: I think you are missing the point if you focus on the women and not on the firms. Times are changing, and more qualified women than ever are entering accounting. These women are smart, educated and driven, like Marissa. The potential leaders are out there. The question is: What are firms doing to create an environment so women can grow professionally and know they have a shot at the top? Some of the hardest workers I know are female and they are looking for a more faceted approach to success. The one-way partnership route that worked during the last 30 years needs to be expanded today. One size does not fit all.

He said: Granted, times are changing and more women than ever are in accounting. Fifty percent of all new CPAs are women and probably 50 percent of new hires are women - but only 13-15 percent make it to partner. The real question might be: Why are women leaving in droves when they reach a certain level in accounting firms? When I became a partner, there was only one way to go -- you worked hard and long and after several years, you became a partner. Many male partners still think that there is only one way to the top, and expect women to follow the same road.

She said: It's not that women want any special treatment. Women professionals should not be promoted just to equalize the numbers. Only qualified professionals should be given leadership roles. Many women out there would make phenomenal leaders. That isn't the issue. The issue is: What is the profession doing to cultivate and develop these phenomenal women?

He said: The accounting profession has started a women's initiative program, which is a great start. It focuses on equal engagement of women and men in leadership of the profession, the advancement of women to positions of leadership and the successful integration of personal and professional lives. It's a start, but it is not enough.

She said: Women entering into accounting need to understand both the demands and rewards of this profession. Medical students understand what they are getting into from the beginning. We need to make the commitment requirements known in college and we need to be able to promote and reward those who work hard in our firms so that we have future women leaders who are role models for future generations. I would like to think that the barriers of the past are on the way out. The old way of thinking, that women don't desire to climb the ranks of leadership, is becoming obsolete. So, what's the solution?

He said: From a handful of conversations with successful women professionals, I have a few ideas that firms need to consider. If women are leaving your firm en masse, then there is a structural and cultural issue within the firm. Each firm needs to look inward to determine what it can do to develop female leaders and create an environment in which great women can succeed. My suggestions:

• The one way to partnership needs to be discarded. Firms need to create multiple career pathways and timelines to partner in order to take into account maternity/paternity leave, health issues, bereavement, etc.

• Establish formal mentoring programs, which over time will evolve to more informal mentoring across the firm. Women need to have successful role models to follow. Lack of women role models definitely holds back other women.

• Develop or sponsor a women's network. If your firm is too small, then find others to partner with on the initiative.

• Invest future women leaders in senior leadership development programs.

• Seek out opportunities to publicly promote the female senior talent in your organization as speakers at industry conferences and in industry publications.

• Work at a successful integration of employees' personal and professional lives.

They said: We believe the accounting profession has a long way to go. What do you think? Let's hear from the women in the profession. Send your comments to either of our e-mails, and we will share responses in an upcoming issue of Accounting Today.

 

August Aquila (www.aquilaadvisors.com) is a well-known consultant, retreat facilitator and author. Reach him at (952) 930-1295 or aaquila@aquilaadvisors.com. Angie Grissom is a leading consultant at The Rainmaker Companies, who exclusively serves accounting firms. Reach her at (615) 373-9880 or angie@therainmakercompanies.com.

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