Debra Sessions, a partner at Atlanta-based Porter Keadle Moore, admits that while the proverbial glass ceiling does exist in the accounting profession, it's something that employees have helped build.

Sessions said that it's difficult combining family and personal life along with work, and that most women have a choice not to have it all.

Illinois: Troubling results?The Illinois CPA Society, through its Women's Executive Committee, released the results of its second annual women's leadership survey, designed as a means of assessing the role and representation of women in Illinois public accounting firms.The first of the surveys, released in 2003, revealed that there's still a long way to go before the advancement of women into leadership positions is equal to that of their male counterparts.

Elaine Weiss, president and chief executive of the ICPAS, said that there is still bias today and the glass ceiling is still around at many firms. Many women, she noted, will opt out without even going near the partnership level simply because they choose to. "Sort of like Mother Nature colliding with Father Time," Weiss said.

The current survey, distributed among 71 Illinois firms, found only a slight change from last year's figures. While an increase of 1 percent in the number of women partners/principals/directors was reported (from 15 to 16 percent), the uptick was attributable to only 14 firms. All other firms noted either no change or a decrease in this category. A 1 percent decrease in the number of female senior managers/managers (from 40 percent to 39 percent) also was reported, as well as a 2 percent drop in the percentage of women senior staff/staff (from 54 percent to 52 percent).

The 2004 study further found that women represent 41 percent of total professionals, versus 42 percent in 2003. Similarly, survey results reflected very little movement with respect to firm-wide leadership positions held by women.

Although the percentage change in all categories from 2003 to 2004 was minimal, the study did reveal some interesting statistics.

For one, in 2004, the representation of women partners/principals/directors at the Big Four firms (18 percent) and firms with 50 to 100 professionals (17 percent) within Illinois is higher than the Illinois average (16 percent). What is more, on average, firms with 100 to 500 professionals (12 percent) and 8 to 50 (10 percent) reported a lower percentage of women partners than the Illinois average.

Also of note in the 2004 findings is the decline in the percentage of women employed in the earlier levels of the firm, namely senior/staff-level positions (52 percent in 2004, compared to 54 percent in 2003). This decline is a matter of some concern. The numbers may indicate, for instance, that women in the early stages of their careers feel that progress to the top is not possible, and are therefore choosing to leave their firms. Or, on the other hand, the numbers simply may be an aberration.

Meanwhile, surveys conducted by the CPA Personnel Report and the American Institute of CPAs suggest that Illinois firms are actually outpacing their counterparts nationwide.

The issue of women's representation is particularly important to today's college students.

Annual assessment sends a positive message to these future accounting professionals, who are "very interested in the results of the survey, and appreciate that the society is tracking women's progress in public accounting firms," explained Dr. Penny Yunker, chair of the Department of Accountancy at Western Illinois University.

As many of her counterparts in Illinois did, Yunker distributed the original 2003 survey to colleagues and students.

Students attending the Women's Executive Committee-sponsored Women's Leadership Breakfast last fall responded to the survey's publication enthusiastically, and the ICPAS and the WEC plan to issue another survey in 2005.

"Women [may] have decided they don't want it all because it's just too stressful," she said. "Men and women are equal in talent, and women have chosen not to have everything while, in my opinion, men still feel that they have to do everything."As director of administration and chief operating officer since 1988, Sessions has been involved in all aspects of managing a CPA firm, including budgeting, recruiting, facilities management, employee benefits, continuing education, cash management and capital acquisitions. She pointed out that the young women coming up today are getting married later in their career, so they don't really have role models.

A recent survey found that in 2003, some 13 percent of partners in the nation's largest accounting firms were female. A similar poll conducted by the American Institute of CPAs in December found that 12 percent of partners in accounting firms with 11 or more professionals were women.

"This new generation is making decisions as to what they want, and are taking advantage of all opportunities," Sessions said.

Joan Waggoner, who has been on the Women's Executive Committee of the Illinois CPA Society, spoke to the subject not as a partner in a major firm, but from her own personal belief. She feels that the glass ceiling still exists, but more subtly than in the past.

"And it doesn't exist because of any grand scheme of wickedness in the male community," she said. "It exists because of the different ways that males and females communicate with each other and perceive the world, and also a very human response - or lack thereof - to changing the status quo."

Beth Pagnotta, who retired in 2001 as a partner from KPMG, said that there is no question in her mind that a significant glass ceiling remains in the world of public accounting.

"In my view, there can be no other explanation for the fact that, in 2003, only 15 percent of the women in an [ICPAS] survey were partners or principals," she said. "I would wager that it has been at least 10 years, if not more, that women at least equaled the number of men hired, and as a result, I believe that these statistics are not just the impact of waiting for women to get through the pipeline. To me, the ceiling has not cracked. It's the pipeline that has cracked, and I fear that women are spilling out of it, unwilling to continue to fight the good fight."

Need a sledgehammer?

Continuing to keep the issue front and center is first and foremost, maintained Pagnotta.

"It is not sufficient to merely adopt policy to address diversity concerns," she said. "They must be embraced. The tone must be set at the top. Programs must be established to ensure the policy is put into practice. Take part-time policies, for example, which for the most part had been instituted in an attempt to assist employees to manage work and family issues. The firm must actively set the employee's schedule so that meaningful assignments are made even to those on such a track. Part-time must continue to allow one to be on a partner track."

To further help shatter the glass ceiling, Pagnotta suggested that evaluations give recognition to those who have helped mentor women, who have worked with those on part-time programs, and enabled their involvement not to be a roadblock to advancement.

A third practice she cited would be to have effective exit interviews. "Many firms have such interviews, but probably few have effective ones. Most exiting employees tend not to want to burn bridges, and don't want complaints to sound like sour grapes. We must gather appropriate information in a non-threatening way and use it accordingly."

Mentoring programs, she said, are also critical.

"All too often, companies force the mentoring responsibility upon the one or two women they may have in leadership roles. First of all, that, in and of itself, suggested that men are not responsible for mentoring women," she said. "Quite frankly, these women may not be interested in providing mentoring, or may not be effective at it, which might induce more harm than good. It may be that a female partner has either come to the decision not to have children of her own, or has worked out her own situation with her spouse so that the marital partner is a stay-at-home parent. While both of these paths are sound, the observing staff member begins to question whether this is a model that the firm is suggesting as necessary in order for there to be advancement among females. Given the number of dual-couple careers today, I daresay that 54 percent of staff in Illinois accounting firms are not willing to remain in an environment where this is a model."

Waggoner pointed out that, if the "different but excellent talents and strengths of women are acknowledged and embraced by management currently controlled by men, then the make-up of management teams and the allocations of the reward systems would significantly change."

In addition, she said that true greatness would elude firms and companies that do not have open and diverse management teams that can together move their entities forward in a creative and enlightened way.

"Many such entities seem to be trapped in their current management teams and structures," she said. She believes that keeping the issue in the public arena is highly important: "To publicize successes and failures in diverse team-building would be helpful to those in control to begin to see some advantages in making changes versus the status quo."

Also, Waggoner said that continuing to educate CPAs in the communication and perception differences between women and men would help to build these diverse teams as well as to improve the information-gathering and relationship-building skills of these CPAs.

She concurred with Pagnotta that improving the mentoring programs of companies - especially at the more senior levels - is critical to the development of future management teams and to women's perceptions of the sincerity of a company's diversity initiative.

Enter the juggler

Gloria Birnkrant, who has been a partner at NSBN in Beverly Hills, Calif., for 10 years, maintained that there has been enormous improvement over the past 40 years. "When I started out and came to a meeting, I was perceived as being a secretary and was on the receiving end of words such as 'Honey, can I help you?'"

She pointed out that this concept has changed dramatically. "In fact, we all know that there are more women coming out of accounting schools today than ever before."

Birnkrant also doesn't think there is a glass ceiling any more. "Why? Because of flexibility within many accounting firms," she said. "Keep in mind that raising a family still predominately falls to the female. And some firms admittedly aren't family-friendly. But at my firm we have six women partners and even a part-time one. So, it really comes down to flexibility. Women most often are raising kids and even caring for elderly parents. However, this flexibility, which is needed even more than before, doesn't only apply to women. It should apply equally to men, because we're all involved - and should be."

Julie Floch, director of not-for-profit services at New York-based Eisner, said that, while it didn't seem as if there was an abundance of women partners in the profession a few years ago, there certainly were some. "But, as I look around now in 2004, I see more and more women at the partnership level in the profession. I don't feel - and have never felt - that there is a glass ceiling for women. However, I do feel that attaining partnership involves choice and sacrifice for both men and women: The hours, client demands, and responsibilities certainly compete strongly with a balanced family life."

She pointed out that the profession as a whole has tried to be accommodating to maternity leave concerns and the need for flexible hours for both men and women. "Certainly our firm has, and I have many colleagues at other firms who say the same thing. In that respect, I think that our profession addresses the changing needs and concerns of the marketplace as other professions have done."

Lori Reiner, the partner-in-charge relating to services to women entrepreneurs at Goldenberg Rosenthal, in Jenkintown, Pa., believes that other industries are still further along than CPAs.

Reiner said that when she became Goldenberg's first female partner five years ago, the firm was 80 years old. Since then, another woman has made partner. "At Goldenberg Rosenthal, I feel we are well ahead of the curve," she said, noting, however, that there is a generation of women who are tending to opt out and are working part-time because of family. "I could never do what I do without a supportive husband. Keep in mind that many women simply don't want all the stress. If a woman wants a leadership position, it is there for them today."

Developing leaders

Leslie Murphy, managing partner of client services and director of firm strategic planning for Plante & Moran, based in Southfield, Mich., said that her firm has the highest percentage of female partners (19.1 percent) of the 15 largest firms in the country. In addition, its total staff is 55.9 percent female.

"In 1986, after witnessing the tremendous influx of women into the accounting profession, P&M organized its Parenting Tightrope Action," she said. "Comprised of partners and staff, PTA analyzed the needs of the company's parenting staff, with an extra emphasis on the challenges that working mothers face, and introduced a variety of programs and policies. I truly believe there has been significant progress in breaking down the glass ceiling. The concept of preparing people for leadership roles is in place at an earlier age."

As a member of the senior leadership team of the country's 10th largest public accounting and management consulting firm, Murphy is one of the highest-ranking women in public accounting today. She was co-founder of the PTA committee, and responsible for the work-life initiatives.

The groundbreaking policies recommended by the group paved the way for the firm's recognition by Fortune Magazine as one of the nation's 100 Best Places to Work for the past six years. Murphy also is the incoming vice chair of the American Institute of CPAs.

She emphasized that the most important thing to do is to develop leadership positions: "We learn by doing and building on it. Leadership development, succession planning. Do we have appropriate representation for both men and women? You must take more of a chance today and keep in mind that the most important aspect is still flexibility."

Lyne Noella, the chief marketing officer for California-based Stonefield Josephson, said that when discussing her role as a member of the management team, she makes her expectations clear up front. "How you are treated is a reflection of your own approach and your personal style," she said. "If you lack executive qualities and do not take the initiative in your area of expertise, you will not get respect. If you make a significant contribution to the success of the accounting firm and are sensitive to the needs of those around you, then you will get respect."

She added that, in her experience, most accounting firms would like to see more female partners. "Managing partners tell me that their biggest challenge is identifying and grooming leaders. Those managing partners are gender-blind: They just want results. I have found that everything falls into place when you get to know and care about those in the firm. You all have the same goal: to make the business go and provide new opportunities for everyone. If a woman feels that there is no opportunity with her current employer, then she should start her own business or join a firm that will allow her to flourish."

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