The event may be have been billed as The Forum for Women in Accounting, but the issues and topics discussed at the three-day confab here were decidedly not just for one gender.That was the overriding sentiment during the course of the conference, and one that resonated with the majority of the 250 attendees, which even included a handful of men.

“Staffing shortages drove women’s issues into a business-case scenario,” explained Gale Crosley, CPA, founder of Atlanta-based consultancy Crosley + Co. and one of the founders of the conference. “This is a joint gender issue. It was important to make it a joint gender conference. We’ve got a great foundation; now it’s a matter of how we take it to the next level.”

During the meeting, conference-goers attended sessions that included tips on how to build firm niches, career management, mentoring from a woman’s perspective, work/life balance, part-time partners and building effective women’s leadership programs.

Crosley developed the conference with The Advisory Board. This was the second year of the Women’s Forum.

Acknowledging the growing number of women graduating with accounting degrees and entering the profession, Crosley said that originally the goal of the conference was to get as many role models on stage as possible so women could see and be inspired to reach their own professional goals. Forum organizers also wanted to focus on the skill sets of leadership and business development — areas that are most important to women. Now, she said, the goal is to keep it fresh and relevant so that attendees keep coming back.

“I think that, if you look at the demographics of the industry, women will be in much greater and much more important leadership positions going forward,” said Gary Shamis, CPA and managing partner of SS&G Financial Services in Cleveland, and a member of the Advisory Board. “This is a way to help them get ahead more effectively. The top 125 firms, they get it. Those who don’t like it still get it.”

In addition to the various keynotes, a series of concurrent sessions were held that were broken down into partner, manager and firm-culture tracks. The smaller breakout groups allowed women to share their stories and experiences in discussion groups.

As one female participant observed, “Women tend to talk more openly when their male counterparts aren’t around.”

Still, many women could be heard saying over meals or at the cocktail reception, “I wish the men in my firm were here,” or “I’m really glad my firm pushed me to come to this.”

Gary Boomer, CPA, CITP and chief executive of Boomer Consulting, in Manhattan, Kan., who also is a member of the Advisory Board and a columnist for Accounting Today, said that he wondered why there weren’t more people in attendance.

“I just don’t think a lot of firms are serious enough about the next generation — whether it’s women, or men and women,” he said. “I think a lot of firms need to wake up and understand how it will help the profitability of the firm, including retention and attraction of new people.”

Recruiting and retention was, inarguably, the biggest challenge facing the women attendees — a majority of whom were partners and managers at the top 125 firms in the country. Many worked at firms generating between $11 million and $20 million in annual revenue.

Issues such as succession planning, mergers and acquisitions, outsourcing, compliance, and globalization were also discussed as crucial topics affecting the accounting profession.

Crosley pointed to the nurturing of niches within a firm to encourage growth, specifically those focusing on international issues, fraud and forensics, and litigation support, and noted that basic tax prep, low-end bookkeeping and general practices were “endangered species.”

During his opening keynote, Shamis of SS&G said that staffing is an employer’s biggest asset and problem. He said that while recruiting might pose a challenge, especially when going up against the resources of the Big Four, the best way to deal with staffing issues is from within — working hard to keep the employees you already have.

“The retention side stuck out as where the opportunities are,” he said. “[Employees] already work for us.”

As a result, more firms are interested in work/life balance initiatives — though during a session called “Benchmarking with Your Peers,” facilitated by Boomer and his colleague Sandra Wiley, the audience was divided in their encouragement of alternative career paths.

“My assessment of this profession is that there is a lot of opportunity for firms to differentiate,” said Rebecca Ryan, CEO of Next Generation Consulting Inc., a market research firm in Madison, Wis. Ryan was named a member of the Advisory Board in March. “This field is so undifferentiated as it relates to talent, retention and attraction, it’s like a candy store. There’s so much opportunity to help these firms.”

Some firms are already catching on.

For instance, Citrin Cooperman & Co. LLP, based in New York, offers a four-week paid sabbatical to employees at the manager rank or below who have been with the firm a minimum of six years. When employees return, they are asked to submit essays on their opinions of the firm, according to partner Lori Drucker, CPA, and her colleague, Mandeep Sihota, CFA. Sihota, in her 30s, recently became director of the firm’s valuation services, and said that she was thankful her firm encouraged the two of them to attend the conference.

“I’m extremely happy I came,” Sihota said. “The conference touches upon issues that are relevant, that are not just solely women’s issues. Niche markets, trends — these are things all accountants should be thinking about. It’s very practical. I can go back and now have ideas I can do.”

First-time attendee Esther Phahla, a CPA from Temecula, Calif., said that the highlight of the conference for her was listening to other women’s stories on how they balance work and family life. “For me, it was looking for and learning from other women who have been in the profession longer than I have been,” she said.

Randi Grant, CPA and a director at Berkowitz Dick Pollack & Brant in Miami, said that she, too, would be bringing back a variety of ideas to her firm. “Women are so in tune with what’s going on in the culture,” she said. “This conference is providing the resources for these firms, and these women are going to be the catalyst for change.”

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