Strategies from the 2019 Best Firms for Women

The role of women in accounting has been a hot topic in the 21st century, as the profession struggles to reconcile the fact that women graduate with accounting degrees in nearly equal numbers as men, but are much less likely to ascend into leadership positions.

The American Institute of CPAs and other membership communities, like the Accounting & Financial Women’s Alliance, have tracked this progress — or lack thereof — as the profession strives to be more diverse and inclusive. Only 22 percent of women reach the partner level in public accounting firms, according to the AICPA’s 2017 “CPA Firm Gender Survey,” and though that number is higher at smaller firms, it has remained relatively unchanged for years. Firms participating in AFWA’s 2019 Accounting MOVE Project reported a 33 percent ratio of women on management committees, and that only 27 percent were partners or principals, only a slight uptick from previous years.

Given this imbalance, Accounting Today has identified an elite group of firms that are providing an environment for women to thrive — the 2019 Best Firms for Women (see the full report here). They are a subset of our 2019 Best Firms to Work For, which was released in September and compiled in partnership with Best Companies Group.

Specifically, to be considered one of the 10 Best Firms for Women, a firm had to: have a minimum of 15 women working in the organization, or composing 25 percent of total employees (whichever is greater); have attained a female response rate to our employee satisfaction survey of at least 40 percent; have at least 10 women complete the survey; and have a gender gap in overall engagement that is 5 percent or less. Firms that met these criteria were then ranked by their female employees’ average positive response rates to the survey.

Given these firms’ vaunted position above their peers, we asked a selection of the 2019 Best Firms for Women how they achieved this recognition, as well as how other firms and the profession at large can successfully attract, retain and advance women.

The Best Firms for Women we surveyed, with their leaders providing responses as a collaborative effort with their teams, are E. Cohen & Co. CPAs (the No. 1 firm on our list), EEPB, HeimLantz CPAs, Blackman & Sloop CPAs, Klein Hall CPAs and GunnChamberlain.

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The female leaders of No. 1 Best Firm for Women E. Cohen & Co. CPAs (clockwise from top left): administrative manager Frances Machado; HR talent manager Elizabeth Fuentes; tax principal Robin Cameron; outsourcing principal Donna Mahan; and assurance principal Kimberly Maxwell

What makes you a Best Firm for Women?

HeimLantz CPAs: Based on the feedback that we collected from women in our team, the most common theme is flexibility. We have team members at various stages of life — from having very young children to teenagers heavily involved in school activities, to young adults heading off to their first or second years of college. We also have team members who are caring for older parents and in a few cases spouses that have battled serious illnesses. The flexibility to care for family members no matter the circumstance is very important.

Some of the other feedback that was received was the growth and challenge that our firm offers team members, the feeling that there are opportunities for everyone at every level, and knowing that they are respected for their abilities and always treated as an equal.

Blackman & Sloop CPAs: We are a Best Firm for Women for three top reasons:

1. Female leadership. Females are represented at a higher rate within our leadership team than you would see at other CPA firms. … At Blackman & Sloop, females make up more than 80 percent of our partnership group.

2. Firm policies. We believe in making the workplace accessible for women. We offer the flexibility and a family-oriented atmosphere to help working women balance work and their home life.

3. Company culture. Our culture doesn’t let us settle for not being an equal-opportunity workplace. We look for networking events for women, recruit women looking for an amazing career path, and encourage team bonding that solidifies female friendships in and outside of the office.

GunnChamberlain: Our culture offers opportunities and an equal playing field for everyone. We strive to create a culture where every team member is encouraged to be their best and bring out the best in others.

EEPB: Flexible hours and the ability to utilize telecommuting.

You were named a Best Firm for Women based on positive survey responses from the women on your staff. What would you say these positive responses are based on?

E. Cohen & Co. CPAs: As a PrimeGlobal member firm, we encourage women of our firm to participate in the women’s leadership group where they can meet and network with other valuable contacts to gain ideas and grow in their profession. We are very fortunate to have so many women leaders in our firm that are great mentors that can offer support and advice to other up-and-coming female leaders of the firm. We have received valuable feedback from this group to help us improve as a firm. Additionally, as a firm, we encourage a work-life balance to all our employees. We support them through difficult times, and we make sure all employees feel equally respected.

EEPB: We are very open to encouraging professionals to reach their full potential. Women utilize these opportunities as much as, if not more than, men. Also, there are not any rigid mandates. Therefore, it is a healthy, encouraging environment.

Blackman & Sloop: These responses are likely due to the female leadership we have within our firm. Public accounting is a male-dominated profession. Blackman & Sloop has seven women on our leadership team of 11. It’s not a jump to assume that seeing this female-led firm is an inspiration to women in the profession and a reason why women want to work for our firm.

One of our core values is to foster a positive team and family spirit. This has made our firm a family-friendly environment. In fact, many of our team members view each other as extended family members.

This family-friendly environment is emphasized by our remote working capabilities, which allow for greater flexibility for women in the workplace. No one has to feel the pressure of working during tax season and not tucking their kids in at night. Instead, our team members are given the trust they deserve to get their work done within the confines of their day.

Additionally, we firmly believe in women being paid for the same work that men are paid for. There are no large pay gaps between genders within our firm.

HeimLantz: The firm has a deeply ingrained culture developed around our purpose and core values. Our core values serve as our compass for how we treat our clients, our team members, and our community. Our values resonate with all of our team members, but I think especially the women in our firm. I think for women, knowing that what they do on a daily basis has a greater meaning than just input and output is very important to feeling fulfilled.

One of our core values is to “innovate to differentiate.” Our firm embraces technology. We have been in a cloud-hosted environment since 2003 and have created processes and procedures that dramatically reduce working with hard files. As a result, working remotely is pretty seamless. Remote working increases our ability to offer flexibility to all of our team while still meeting client expectations.

In addition to the above mentioned, earlier this year, our firm merged with another accounting company. Although there were many benefits to our businesses combining, we were very excited that the firm was run by two women owners, which increased the female representation in our partnership group.

GunnChamberlain: Women have grown great careers here and are wholly supported by the partners. There’s also a cultural openness that encourages women to voice their opinions and contribute their ideas. We all succeed together.

Klein Hall CPAs: At Klein Hall there is the ability to work flexible hours and work from home. This allows employees to manage their time (attend school events/doctor’s visits, etc.) in the best way possible while not feeling micromanaged when their family needs attention during regular business hours. We provide leave for the birth or adoption of a child and provide lactation facilities for breastfeeding mothers. We also do our best to limit meetings and staff-only events to occur during work hours.

Do you have any specific strategies for recruiting women? For retaining them?

Klein Hall: Our founding partner/managing partner, Christina Klein, understands (from experience) the juggling act of raising kids and running a company/building a successful career. A lot of her success in attracting, retaining and promoting women is based on her employee wellness and family-friendly work environment. Finding a work-life balance is challenging for most women as they are looked to for much of the child (and parent) caregiving. Christina makes it a point to know her employees, their families, their celebrations and disappointments. They become an extension of her family.

EEPB: We have updated policies (maternity leave, dress, etc.) to be as competitive as we can be. All other efforts to make professionals feel like they belong apply to both women and men.

E. Cohen: We make sure we put benefits that are important for women first — work from home arrangements when needed, flexible schedules, retirement program, professional development opportunities, paid parental leave for both parents, and mentorship programs to support professional advancement. Women at our firm are not only included in all our initiatives, they lead those initiatives most of the time.

HeimLantz: We really don’t specifically target hiring women. We use a hiring an interview methodology called topgrading which ensures that all candidates are going through a multi-person interview process. As a result, candidates get to meet several team members and discuss with them in great detail their role in the firm. Since we have so many women working in the firm, I think it’s easy for women candidates to see themselves here. It makes an impression. Plus, our hiring method doesn’t allow for any gender biases within the decision process.

GunnChamberlain: When we recruit, our open opportunities for men and women are the same. Respecting the women in the firm and letting them have a voice and input goes a long way toward retaining them.

Blackman & Sloop: There is not anything specific that our firm does to recruit women, but our strong firm culture, which demonstrates our core values, aids in our recruiting of successful people, and their retention.

What is the typical experience for a woman advancing within your firm? What do you do to promote women and attain more of a gender balance in leadership?

HeimLantz: CPA firms as a whole have struggled with how to promote women and younger team members. Our firm has a published talent development program which outlines how team members can go about reaching the next stage in their career, including a path to ownership. In addition, we have a strong executive team that evaluates team members and what they bring to the firm. Team members who are strong in people management, operations or deep technical experience are valued equally to those who are rainmakers.

GunnChamberlain: We recently (January 2019) named a new female partner who was with the firm for two years because of her leadership and contributions to the firm. It’s all in the mindset of the leadership of any firm and moving away from the old/traditional standard in the accounting field. Changing your mindset and rewarding those who deserve it — no matter if they are male or female — works extremely well.

E. Cohen: Our team of principals consists of 50 percent male and 50 percent female. We believe this balance is well represented while serving as an inspiration to others in the firm. With this said, we do not single out or make exceptions based on gender. All employees, whether male or female, are publicly recognized when achieving a milestone or when providing great services to our clients.

EEPB: Women are promoted for the strengths and talents they have, not because they are exactly like their male counterparts. It’s an important difference.

Blackman & Sloop: Since we have a female majority leadership, women can actively see themselves advancing at Blackman & Sloop. Having a majority female leadership helps women better visualize the ability to have a family and a successful career. Our policies, our culture and our core values show we are dedicated to helping them succeed.

E. Cohen: We encourage all employees to grow and achieve their professional goals without having to sacrifice the important things in life. Everyone at our firm is promoted based on professional achievements and we give all the flexibility and support to manage their personal lives while achieving their professional goals.Everyone in the firm has a voice to share ideas, opportunities and successes. We take the time to listen carefully and discuss initiatives or concerns with colleagues. We also make sure everyone is heard the first time they speak. Support has been key to development and advancement at E. Cohen.

What does the accounting profession need to do to retain and advance more women?

Blackman & Sloop: The accounting profession needs to embrace flexible working hours and working from home. In this day of technology, there are very few reasons you could come up with for why someone can’t work from home when their child is sick, or leave early for a soccer game, and make the time up in their home office later that evening. Trust is something that is very important at our firm. Blackman & Sloop trusts our team members to get the work assigned to them done. We don’t micromanage or assume if someone is given the freedom to work outside the office that they will take advantage of it. That hasn’t been the case for us, and from our knowledge, any other firms that we network with.

Without embracing the idea of flexible work schedules, women will start to gravitate toward professions that do embrace it. Firms that have compassion and understanding for women are going to be the most successful in the future.

HeimLantz: I would encourage accounting firms to take time to look internally on a regular basis. When you look at a group picture of your firm on your website, do you see diversity? If not, start asking the hard questions. Look at firm policies, the firm’s interview and hiring process, speak to women in the firm about the challenges they face and what would make it a better work environment. Ask the women in your firm if they know how to be considered for promotion.

E Cohen: Gender equality can be achieved as soon as the company gets rid of unknown biases. Many times, opportunities get taken away because we assume what people want, rather than giving people the opportunity they deserve or the opportunity to explore their own capabilities and limits.

GunnChamberlain: Recognize the impact that they can have on the culture of the profession. Be more flexible around life changes that tend to have more of an impact on women’s careers, such as the demands of raising a family or caring for aging parents.

Klein Hall: We’ve heard from our young moms (and future young moms) that other firms provide maternity leave but they feel that they hinder their career by taking advantage of the time away with their infant. With Klein Hall they know they will jump back in where they left off and not find themselves penalized for making family a priority.

EEPB: Recognize and promote the new realities of where, when and how much partners work.

What do you see for the future of women in accounting?

Blackman & Sloop: What we see and what we hope for are two different things. At the moment, there are a lot of firms that seem to be struggling with having their employees have a successful work-life balance, especially given the gravity of workloads this past year. However, at Blackman & Sloop, we see the future for women at our firm becoming even greater. We have a lot of inspiring younger talent that will soon be moving up the ranks. We’re excited to see the fresh perspectives these young women will have on the firm, our clients and our community.

GunnChamerlain: The sky is the limit. The changes technology has brought to the accounting industry have enabled people to work from anywhere, which in turn gives women more flexibility. Women have the ability to lead the top accounting departments and firms.

HeimLantz: Due in part to the challenges that women have faced in the workforce, there has been a dramatic increase in women venturing out, starting their own businesses and working on their own terms. These women often make a point to work with other women, someone they can relate to, and that generally includes their CPA or business consultant. Accounting firms need to recognize this trend and take steps now to create a greater balance in this industry.

EEPB: Women are generally good team leaders and mentors — all positive for the accounting profession

E. Cohen: The future of women in accounting is bright and promising as the industry shifts to more automation. This is giving females the opportunity to move away from clerical tasks and demonstrate their many capabilities and skills to manage and serve as leaders and mentors to others. Additionally, with technology advances, accounting firms are becoming more and more flexible with remote work arrangements to allow women the opportunity to take care of their families, while also pursuing a career.

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E. Cohen & Co.’s managing principal Eric Cohen (center) and the female members of the firm

What challenges have you encountered in creating a positive work culture for women?

EEPB: Day-to-day challenges of technology, labor shortages, and new tax and accounting rules make it stressful for all. Also, some days it seems like all the guys are heading out to play golf. That’s when [the female partners] pull a young staff aside and tell her it’s OK to head out early for the salon.

E. Cohen: Public accounting appears to be a tough industry to recruit women. Many of our applicants had been predominantly male. We are not certain if this is because of the perception of a work-life balance in public accounting, or if it is something else. We have made great efforts to promote the firm’s work-life balance and training and development to encourage more women to apply for positions in the firm, and this seems to have helped.

It is our hope that someday everyone knows that E. Cohen is a firm with an environment that treats all employees equally without bias, so that women know they have equal access to opportunities to be leaders in the firm.

GunnChamberlain: At GunnChamberlain, culturally there is no difference. Regardless of gender, our team members want to have work-life balance, be appreciated and respected, and have an opportunity to grow and achieve. We strive to provide an environment where this is the culture.

HeimLantz: We adopted our firm’s purpose and core values over six years ago. We speak about them regularly and we look for examples and stories to share during monthly team meetings. We discuss our purpose and core values with our clients, our prospects and hiring candidates. Keeping these values top of mind has created a great culture within our firm regardless of gender.

Blackman & Sloop: In creating a positive work culture for all staff, we view our challenges as opportunities to make the firm a better place to work. Some of our opportunities have resulted in closing the office at 12:30 on Fridays from May 1 to December 31; our remote work policy; and having an in-house wellness committee.

How would you advise other firms seeking to become a Best Firm for Women?

Blackman & Sloop: Listen to them! We encourage you to have a forum where women can discuss the policies they need to succeed in their career. There may be small steps that you can take to make your firm a better place for women to work, but you won’t ever know what those steps are until you invite the conversation.

EEPB: Find your leaders and give them the tools to be successful. They know what they need, just ask them.

E. Cohen: Make sure leadership understands the importance of gender equality. This is the key to becoming a great workplace for women. When a workplace gets to understand the importance of gender equality, the path to a positive culture for women gets more defined, clearer and easier for everyone to follow.

GunnChamberlain: Move away from the traditional thinking that a staff member has to be in the office and work the most hours to get ahead in the industry.

HeimLantz: This is a challenging question because we were not “seeking to become a Best Firm for Women,” but becoming a “Best Firm” at all really starts with a great culture that benefits all.

What’s on the horizon for your firm in terms of keeping up its status as a Best Firm for Women?

EEPB: We just added three new female owners/shareholders. We believe this is a strong message to our female staff that EEPB is gender-neutral and to motivate women that they too can be successful if they stay in the firm.

E. Cohen: As we grow to become the “Next Big Firm,” it is our plan to implement more diversity and inclusion initiatives to secure our success and long life of our firm. Implementing more D&I initiatives will allow for competitive advantage, better decision-making, higher employee engagement, and better company reputation. Maintaining our “Best Firm for Women” status will support our D&I efforts.

HeimLantz: We are going to stay true to our core values.

Blackman & Sloop: We continue to perform stay interviews; we have monthly firmwide staff meetings; and we have staff-led committees, including training, wellness, benefits and social. We believe in transparency and value our staff’s input and feedback.

GunnChamberlain: The accounting profession is in a constant state of evolution. We must remain aware of the changes and how we need to adapt our business practices to attract top talent. We need to work smarter with the technology available.

Any final thoughts on the status of women in the profession?

E. Cohen: Long gone are the days of few women leaders in the workplace. Everyone in the firm is equal and treated as such. As an industry and moving forward, it is important that all accounting firms give women access to great mentors (male or female) who will guide them through their career. If we can shift the gender perception, we will continue to see more and more women in leadership roles.

GunnChamberlain: We have worked diligently to create a culture where we would want our sisters, and now granddaughters, to create their careers. When we provide an environment suited for women we love, there is great success to be enjoyed.

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