Turn the clock back some 50 years, and you'll find that there were only 750 female CPAs. Fast-forward to 1972, and that total had increased to 2,000.Last year, the American Institute of CPAs had 106,000 female members, and in public accounting, the number of female CPAs with membership in the institute was roughly 41,000.

Even before Gay Bryant coined the term "glass ceiling" in a March 1984 article in the publication Adweek, researchers had debated why women seldom reached the highest ranks in business.

But that debate no longer rages.

Gale Crosley, CPA and founder of Crosley+Co., an Atlanta-based organization that consults with CPA firms to help them understand the challenges in growing revenue, answered with a resounding "Yes," when asked if the glass ceiling is coming down.

"I see more potential for movement over the next five to 10 years than ever, driven by pragmatic realities - staff shortages and the high concentration of female accounting graduates," she said.

Crosley added that how much women leverage this opportunity would determine their future in the accounting profession: "If we don't create the conditions to encourage them, we'll continue to experience a relatively smaller number of women in leader positions. If we want an abundant 'garden' of women, then we need to create optimal conditions - Miracle-Gro, watering schedules and adequate sunlight. Our profession was originally built when women weren't in it, so it needs some special attention to make it more attractive to women now."

Julie Floch, CPA, partner and director of not-for-profit services for New York City-based firm Eisner LLP, concurred. "Although I didn't feel that there was a significant glass ceiling to begin with, I believe the ceiling is more of a 'Can you work the requisite hours?' rather than a male/female issue," she said. "I believe that the workplace has become much more flexible in general with telecommuting and the like, and that has resulted in more opportunities that might not otherwise have been available."

In Atlanta, Deborah Sessions, a partner at Porter Keadle Moore, also agreed, and pointed out that women in the accounting workforce are pushing the envelope now, while employers are making great strides to be more flexible, with alternative work arrangements. In effect, she said, there is more progress on the employer side than ever before.

"The opportunities that accounting offers women are wide-open and varied. At our firm, eight of our 18 partners are women and eight of our nine managers are women," said Gloria Birnkrant, a partner at NSBN LLP, in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Lyne Noella, director of corporate strategy for the Los Angeles-based firm of Stonefield Josephson, noted that professional service firms, as a whole, are committed to advancing women and minorities in the profession for two practical reasons: "Accounting firms need every advantage possible to compete effectively in the marketplace, and that means mining the best talent, be it male or female. If an individual can make meaningful contributions to the success and profitability of your accounting firm, are you going to ignore that person because she is not the average white male? I think not. It does not make good business sense, and 'average' does not cut it in today's competitive environment."

She went on to say that on another level, accounting firms are in desperate need of personnel to work on the many accounts that they bring in. "If the staff is bright and capable, who cares whether they have long hair and wear high heels, so long as the work is completed professionally? And if those who wear high heels do not see other females at the management level of your accounting firm, what would motivate them to stay?"

"Three years ago, we did not have any women principals at our firm. Today, eight of our 53 principals are women, and three of the eight women work on a flexible schedule," said Rosalie Mandel, a principal with Rothstein Kass, in Roseland, N.J. "Now that's a dramatic change. When discussing this issue with other women at conferences and networking events, we feel that there have been significant changes and more opportunities for women to advance to the partner/shareholder level."

"When I first started in the accounting field, the numbers were approximately 80 percent men to 20 percent women," explained Catherine Parente, a partner at New England-based Carlin, Charron & Rosen. "I think they are probably closer to 50/50 now, and soon the balance will tip, even though the shift is predominantly at the staff level."

More female partners?

"Most managing partners are aware of the female shrinkage problem - from 56 percent of accounting graduates to approximately 15 percent of partners," said Crosley. "Many firm leaders don't know how to attack the shrinkage. Many are trying to determine how much and what kinds of investment to make, and the likely returns. Can we impact the numbers? How do we do it? These are the questions they're contemplating. Certain realities can't be impacted - women will always be bearing children and leave the workforce for some period of time. But other factors can be impacted, through training, coaching, tools and creative solutions."

Crosley noted that in her Women's Leadership Workshops, she consistently hears two primary themes: Women struggling with establishing credibility and exuding confidence. "We don't hear these same issues in male-dominated audiences," she said. "These are learned skills, which are fundamental to client service, rainmaking and leadership effectiveness. Teaching women these skills is one example of how a firm can impact the effectiveness and success of their women. We are just at the beginning of understanding and overcoming the shrinkage problem in our senior ranks. There was no compelling business case before recent years. But with significant staffing shortages and succession considerations, firms are starting to attack the problem."

Floch, too, believes that accounting firms are interested in diversity, and that "certainly includes female partners."

In fact, more female partners are on the way, as Porter Keadle's Sessions pointed out. "Over 50 percent of our hires are female, but sometimes our leadership group needs to mirror the rest of the firm. Women want to be partners and have leadership roles. And keep in mind that for the most part, they don't have mentors."

NSBN's Birnkrant feels that a lot of it has to do with the current generation of managing partners that grew up going to college right alongside a large percentage of women in their classes, and find it natural to have women in the firms moving up along with the men.

Stonefield Josephson's Noella added that accounting firms want more female partners to provide a viable path for the young women who work in the firm, and to attract female job candidates.

Rothstein Kass' Mandel said that there is no question that there are increasing percentages of women entering the profession each year. "Accounting firms have realized that in order to take advantage of this trend, they need to attract and retain the best people in the profession by offering women flexibility on many levels, as well as the opportunity for advancement," she said. "By developing an environment where the best women in the profession choose to be, these firms are able to take advantage of the rapidly growing pool of female accounting professionals."

CC&R's Parente feels that the accounting firms today would really like to see more female partners; however, she says that the fact remains that the time commitment to reach partner-level is especially difficult for a woman who also wants to raise a family. "For that reason, you'll see women still not reaching partner-level in the numbers that firms would like in the near term."

Family and work?

Crosley said that women have mostly had to figure it out for themselves, with relatively little focus, resources or solutions applied - thus far. "Firms were built before we had to consider these issues. So the very foundation of our firms - where we work, when we work, how much we work, the partner-track model - were built based upon a set of conditions very different from today," she said. "Re-engineering our firms for the new realities will take time and creativity. The Big Four have been the first to take it on. Their experiences can be valuable to mid-market firms."

Floch noted that the challenges affect both men and women. "I don't think this is an issue that will ever disappear, particularly now with BlackBerrys and e-mail. I maintain that the blending of family/personal/work occurs more and more - for good and for bad."

"We're still faced with the same challenges," said Sessions, "But in two-career families it's shared more. Females still are driving the car, even with a willing spouse. I have two female managers who just had babies and are coming back to work on a flexible schedule."

Birnkrant also acknowledged that child-rearing seems to fall mostly to the female in the family. "Although I do see a lot of men involved in child care, including the dropping off to day care and the picking up from day care, we have in our firm probably 15 women on less than full-time schedules. Some choose to work less than a full week, while others request just to be relieved of the overtime pressures of the busy season. Our firm offers flexible start times, so we have staff that come in at 10 a.m. and leave at 3 p.m. It is much more worthwhile to have a good person on your staff for three to four days a week than not at all. Accommodations are also made for those getting advanced degrees."

Noella said that she doesn't know of anyone, male or female, who is not challenged with keeping their personal life in line while working. "Everyone, from the managing partner to the receptionist, has personal issues that must be handled after hours, whether it is to support a sister who is going through a divorce or to buy a new home," she said. "Certainly, childcare presents an extraordinary challenge, but women and men today are much more cooperative in taking responsibility for the children. Today's accounting male is not embarrassed to tell male and female colleagues that he is making special arrangements to handle work issues around child care."

Mandel, too, believes that it will always be challenging for women to balance family and personal life with work.

She said that the responsibility of managing the family structure typically falls on a woman's shoulders, and somehow women need to find balance and keep everything in control. "However, I feel that we are making strides toward having employers realize the need for retaining top talent by providing flexible work schedules and other programs and benefits. When I had my first child, I found balance by working three days a week, which allowed me to be more involved with my children and manage the household while achieving my goals at work. This arrangement has benefited both the firm and myself."

In addition, she pointed out that Rothstein Kass is in the early stages of developing a women's program for its employees. "It is our hope that this program will empower and encourage women at our firm to be leaders while managing a work/life balance that best fits their needs."

Parente said that it remains a challenge for women to combine work and family, as it is for men, although it is becoming easier than it was in the past. "A priority in firms is on recruiting and retaining staff, and offering a work/life balance as a key driver in achieving those goals," she said. "Firms are being made to change in order to attract top talent, and they are especially looking at ways to make the demands of the profession easier on women."

Laura O'Loughlin, president of Connecticut-based NexVue Information Systems, a financial systems integrator, said that women in accounting are breaking through the glass ceiling in two areas that were long dominated by men - finance and technology.

O'Loughlin started as the only woman on a 50-person team at a time when accounting software was still considered emerging technology. Her ability to integrate expertise in finance and technology gave her an advantage over other candidates, and made her uniquely qualified for senior management positions where she could help drive strategy and operations. "Male or female, the finance executive who has a deep understanding of this technology - and the ability to communicate like a project manager - has a significant advantage over the one who does not," she said.

What's on the drawing board?

Crosley envisioned two scenarios.

"Door No. 1 features firms and their professionals experiencing flex-time, flex-place and flex-career-track alternatives as part of their fundamental design. In this reality, investments have been made to 'hothouse' the female talent pool, and overcome the biases inherent in our culture and in the minds of our women," she said. "Door No. 2 features a continuing female shrinkage problem. In this scenario, more mergers, outsourcing and para-professional solutions exist to fill the shrinkage gap. I think it's too early to tell which reality we'll experience, and in what time frame. There are some signs that early-to-market firms are taking on the business problem and solving it. Firms such as SS&G Financial Services, J.H. Cohn and Elliott Davis are examples of non-Big Four concerns investing, learning and reaping the rewards."

"Two years ago, we couldn't seriously engage partners in the conversation," she added. "Now, we can't keep up with the demand for feedback and advice. This tells me firms are likely to attack the problem - for competitive advantage, for succession solutions and to positively impact staffing problems."

Floch thinks that we'll continue to see an increase in women, particularly now that women heavily populate the business schools; that, she says, will translate into the workforce, and the flexibility of the work environment will continue attracting even more women.

Sessions sees more women taking leadership and partnership roles. "Marketing people are now partners, constituting not just the technical side. Our firm tries to bring the family in as the culture of firm, paying attention to sacrifices that are made, planning family activities, having a general awareness. The whole person comes to work, not just the technical. This is no longer a balancing act, but rather a blend."

Birnkrant said that the time is fast approaching when female managing partners are not the exception but the rule. She sees it moving over the 50 percent mark. "We have a deputy managing partner at our firm now. She assists the managing partner with the decision-making process and is there to cover when he is tending to other responsibilities. He is also busy with his day to drop off and pick up the kids at school."

Parente noted that as more firms are finding innovative ways to improve the work/life balance, we'll see more women break into the senior- and partner-level ranks. "We'll also find a continuing shift in the percentages of women to men overall, with women likely comprising 60 to 65 percent of the industry. Accounting will continue to be an attractive career choice at the college level."

Noella opined that the accounting profession will only get better as it looks for ways to conduct business in a more creative, profitable manner. "The bottom line is that true leaders are few and far between, and we all want them, be they male or female," she said. "The field of accounting provides every individual an opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to the profession and his or her own firm. It is a career that leads to life-long friendships and collaboration. Accountants who limit their opportunities by shunning females and minorities will be left in the dust by the rest of us who are having a great time in the profession."

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