Much of last week's annual Joint Inspired Solutions Conference -- which drew hundreds of women accountants to Philadelphia -- was delivered through an inherently unique filter.

With the gender split of the profession moving closer than ever to parity (though men still far outnumber women in leadership positions), the top issues on the minds of industry leaders today seem to be more about Sarbanes-Oxley than working mommy. Which is maybe a good thing.

I didn't hear one outright mention of the glass ceiling, or concerns that a woman's voice wasn't being heard within the firm. But that didn't mean a distinct undercurrent of empowerment didn't run below much of the surface of the conference's three days.

The difference between the conference, hosted jointly for a second year by the American Society of Women Accountants and the American Woman's Society of CPAs, and so many of the accounting events I've attended, is that the atmosphere tying the confab together transcended workshops and CPE credit.

It's easy to generalize about the differences between the sexes, but there's no question that the business ways of women are different than those of men. I've been to networking receptions before, for a variety of industries, and there's no doubt there's a different vibe standing amongst a group of working women. The conference was book ended by a charity walk and a silent auction fundraiser. The difference could be felt in the fact that its keynote speaker wasn't a well-known regulator or a heavy-hitter from a Big Four firm, but motivational speaker and author Dorothy Leeds, whose professional background is a mix of business management and Broadway performance.

Leeds, who is featured as a frequent talking head for several television news, opened her presentation about the importance of asking questions, with the self-query she said had led her to become a motivational speaker -- "Is this all you want to be?" Leeds exhorted the crowd to think more productively, lead with confidence and initiate change through asking questions and being better listeners -- both in client dealings as well as in interacting with their colleagues.

On Thursday Steve Erickson, a well-known consultant to national CPA firms, stressed to attendees that issues of work-life balance will remain key issues in retaining workers and touched on a variety of firm structures designed to meet the changing demographics and demands of staff. Friday's keynote saw Neale Godfrey, a single mother, author, and entrepreneur, talking about the importance of audience members taking control of their financial lives.

With four different workshop tracts, the standards of most any accounting conference -- sessions featuring updates on the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, corporate governance, how to retain employees, a host of tax issues -- were easily found.

As much as the conference was about setting the agendas for next year for both organizations, it was about networking and making national connections that couldn't have been easily replicated in any other environment. I heard at least as many stories of family struggles as I did about tax software recommendations, or firm-building advice -- though I heard plenty of those too.

At one point, just before taking a lap around the well-stocked exhibitor and sponsor area, I went from hearing the life story of a female CPA from Anchorage, Alaska (she turned to the profession when her husband turned to a another woman), to eavesdropping on the staffing trials of a woman who owns her own firm in Texas. And I heard at least a half-dozen tales of trial-and-error that could have run straight out of a brochure for the American Institute of CPAs work/life initiative (representatives of which were on hand for a panel presentation on workplace flexibility).

It was a women's conference, and it was good to be able to see and hear a palpable difference. Kendra Hutchison, the president of AWSCPA president, said the organization's membership has held steady around 1,000 in recent years, but there's always a need to offer a unique reason for a CPA to keep her membership current.

"We can't, and don't want to offer the same conference you can find anywhere," Hutchison said. "The accountants gathered here truly span all sorts of roles in the industry -- we're proud to offer an event where the basics of their backgrounds have some easy generalities and an environment were it's natural to make professional contacts."

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