Despite progress, a wide gender gap still exists in accounting's top posts

It's an old story by now.

Women are slowly making their way into leadership positions within firms, and though the number of female partners is on the rise, the question remains: Why in 2009 are we still talking about this issue?

Apparently, the profession isn't ready and women still aren't filling the partner ranks at the rate of their male counterparts. One clear obstacle is that just as women are being primed for partner around the five-to-seven-year mark, that's when many start thinking about starting a family.

But that's just one issue to contend with.

A popular myth is that as the number of women coming into the pipeline increases, they will eventually make up a comparable number of partners/executives, according to Cheryl Leitschuh, president of Leitschuh Leadership Consulting and chair of the American Institute of CPAs' Women's Initiatives Executive Committee.

That isn't exactly happening, however.

In 1989, 48 percent of new public accounting hires were women. Today, just 23 percent of partners are female, according to the institute's 2009 Trends in the Supply of Accounting Graduates and the Demand for Public Accounting Recruits. That report also revealed that new accounting graduates hired by CPA firms were 55 percent female, a 3 percent increase from the previous year.

SO WHAT'S THE PROBLEM?

"Part of it is we're trying to change a culture in firms that has worked for a long time," Leitschuh said. "The traditional work path - work x number of hours and you've earned the right to partnership - lends itself to one type of career path. The culture needs to shift in firms in order to accommodate different career paths."

Another aspect of the problem is also obvious: Men continue to far outnumber women in partner/principal positions, at least according to the Annual Survey on the Role of Women in CPA Firms, released by the Illinois CPA Society. The society surveyed 90 public accounting firms in Illinois with 15 or more professionals. Men hold 82.4 percent of partner/principal positions - statistics that mirror the previous year's findings.

"Our Women's Executive Committee had hoped we would see a great increase in the percentage of partners," said Jennifer Schultz, CPA and vice president of member services and education for the ICPAS, of this year's report. "It's been really flat for seven years, and numbers haven't changed in any category, let alone just the partners."

That doesn't surprise Gale Crosley, president of Crosley + Co. in Atlanta and co-coordinator of the Forum for Women in Accounting conference. She said that the women leaders are out there working in firms, but they're not showing up in statistics.

Of female college accounting graduates, she said that 30 percent are making it to manager, but just 15 percent are making it to partner. "We're getting there very slowly," Crosley said. "It's a long-term problem with a longer-term solution and the reason why is women come into the profession with the cultural baggage of our society."

Women are taught to be responders, not initiators, Crosley explained, and business protocol requires that if you are going to rise to the top of the accounting profession, you've got to be an initiator. Being an initiator, having self-confidence and being fearless around self-promotion are all traits necessary to succeed in the profession, she said, and culturally, more men than women carry those qualities.

"I'm shocked myself that there are so few women partners in the profession," said Geri Gregor, partner-in-charge of consulting at Grassi & Co. in Lake Success, N.Y., and the firm's first female partner. "Across the profession, I don't see that many women on track to be partner. The firm had limited opportunities to add female partners before bringing me into the picture, and our firm now realizes that women can have just as great an impact as men in that role. But there are definitely a lot of obstacles."

Gregor said that Grassi is creating a women's initiative to give women in her firm the tools, training and opportunity to be on the partner track. "If a firm doesn't have a female partner, I think younger women ask, 'How come?'" she said. "Now that I've come on board, they come to me."

CHARACTER TRAITS

"I don't think women want partner bad enough," opined Rita Keller, president of Keller Advisors LLC in Beavercreek, Ohio. She explained that many women are already making good money at the manager level, most likely have a prestigious title and have found most firms to be relatively flexible around their time. "Life has been good. I've always been very puzzled by the fact that females will tend to complain about their lot in life in CPA firms."

Keller said that when there is an issue, women tend not to go to the ownership level in the firm and say things need to change or, "What are we going to do about this?" Women tend to have great client relationships and excel at getting work done, but there's not enough work around leadership skills.

"It really is that final issue that pushes people to partnership," she said in describing women who go after that position as "needing grit." "It takes a female who is very self-assured. It's not a sorority, it's about business."

Gregor agreed with Keller's assessment that women may not want partnership bad enough to make it. "Women have decided that's not what I want to do right now and they take a step back," she said.

Reaching the partner rank is demanding for any gender, according to Leinani Nakamura, who became the first female managing partner at Mohler, Nixon & Williams in Campbell, Calif. She first achieved partner status with Big Four firm KPMG almost 10 years ago, and said that many of her female role models were their family's primary breadwinners. As a result, she saw some of her peers leave, partly because of the demands of the profession and partly because of the expectation they had for themselves regarding success.

"They knew that to be the parent they wanted to be, they couldn't be the employee they expected of themselves," Nakamura said. "So they chose to leave the profession because they couldn't find a way to balance home success and work success. If you have very-high-performing women, sometimes they can't reconcile that. Most men weren't grappling with these issues to the same extent."

Still, she said, the opportunities for advancement were there. "I personally have not felt like my gender has held me back," Nakamura said. "I feel very fortunate to have found a balance I'm proud of."

The demands of long hours coupled with the time-sensitive nature of the client work can often deter talented individuals who can't or won't work a full-time schedule.

Flex-time schedules have helped somewhat to retain women, and now firms are realizing that it's not just women who are looking for an alternative to 80-hour work weeks. Members of the younger generations, for the most part, require schedule flexibility.

But flex-time is still being negotiated within firms, and there seems to be some disagreement on its usefulness.

Fifty-seven percent of firms (responding managing partners or human resources directors) surveyed in the ICPAS report rated them as highly effective. But when women from those same firms were asked their opinions on the programs, 45 percent rated them as only moderately effective.

"It's not uncommon for the organization to say it's flexible and then the individuals say I'm not experiencing that in the same way," said Karol Rose, chief knowledge officer at FlexPaths, a woman-owned company providing technology to help companies incorporate flex-time into their workplaces. According to FlexPaths, 79 percent of employees in general are seeking greater flexibility, 87 percent of full-time professionals look for it in a new job, 47 percent of Baby Boomers said that they would delay retirement if they could flex their hours, and 85 percent of employees under the age of 30 expect it.

"You can have policies in the books but that doesn't mean it's used," Rose said. "In many organizations there might be a stigma attached to you if you choose to work less than full-time"

WHAT NOW?

Meanwhile, the economic downturn seems to have given women in accounting more choice and a chance to shop around for better opportunities.

"I have had more conversations with women who are gainfully employed in public accounting firms in the last three or four months than in the last two or three years," reported Geremy Cepin, director of PDI Global Executive Search in Chicago. "[These women] are evaluating their current positions and seeing what else is out there."

Cepin, whose focus is on senior-level professionals and above, said, "The opportunistic ones are looking for work/life balance, looking to put destiny in their own hands, tired of red tape, looking to be part of a true partnership and want to feel like they have more of an impact in the firm, rather than feeling like a mid-level vice president in a corporation."

What comes into play for these women, according to Cepin, is whether a firm offers professional development and an overall flexible culture. "Women are starting to see the accounting profession open up," he said. "There are more leadership opportunities coming downstream. I'm predicting the number of high-level women is going to continue to rise. Across the industry there's more than it may seem like, you have to find who they are, but the number of females in the public accounting world is definitely increasing."

POWER WOMEN

The List Grows Longer

Just who are the most powerful women in accounting?

We wanted to know what our friends on Facebook and Twitter thought, so we asked them by posting the question via status updates and tweets.

Not surprisingly, Krista McMasters, the new chief executive of Clifton Gunderson, and Lisa Cines, the managing officer at Aronson & Co. in Maryland, were frequently mentioned.

Obviously there are countless women who work hard and are recognized in their communities for their dedication and passion. Others named, in no particular order, included: * Wendy Hambleton of BDO Seidman is the national director of the firm's SEC practice. From 2003 through 2008, the firm experienced a net gain of 175 SEC clients.

* Loretta Doon and Clar Russo, both of CalCPA. Doon is the chief executive and Russo is the chief operating officer of the 35,000-member organization.

* Jill Ward, senior vice president and general manager for Intuit's Accounting Professionals Division.

* Michelle Golden, president of Golden Marketing, is a thought leader on social media and has had an active blog since April 2005.

* Sally Glick, a partner at Sobel & Co. is one of the best-known marketing executives in the accounting profession.

* Nanette Lee Miller, a principal and shareholder at Stonefield Josephson.

* Sandra Wiley of Boomer Consulting is a highly-sought-after speaker and consultant to the accounting profession.

* Sue Swenson, chief executive of Sage North America.

* Jacqueline Akerblom, national managing partner of women's initiatives and programs at Grant Thornton.

(c) 2009 Accounting Today and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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