What happens when you're a female partner who enjoys golfing, but instead of being invited to a golf foursome with important clients, your husband - who's not even with your firm - is asked to go instead?Is this intentional, or just an oversight?

These types of awkward situations still exist for professional women, though many are quick to say that their male counterparts are supportive of their success. "I have observed that men so want women to succeed, and where things are not where they need to be, it's not because men are doing those things purposely," said Gale Crosley, president of Atlanta-based consulting firm Crosley+Co., who was on the receiving end of the above-mentioned anecdote just a few months ago. "They just aren't thinking about it."

There is no doubt that women in the profession have made tremendous strides over the years, and there are statistics to prove it. This year, there are roughly 108,000 women CPAs, as compared to 2,000 in 1972. Since 1986, more than 50 percent of accounting graduates have been female, according to 2004 research released by the American Institute of CPAs' Work/Life and Women's Initiative Executive Committee. Currently, 60 percent of students enrolled in accounting programs are women.

Good news - except the study also found that women are not moving into senior-level positions at the same rate as their male colleagues, and that there is a higher level of uncertainty among women in defining their career aspirations.

Not new findings by any means, but for the upcoming round of research due out next year, the AICPA intends to produce a more "statistically rigorous" report that will delve into why fewer women are aiming for partnership, according to Linda Bergen, CPA and vice president of accounting policy at Citigroup and outgoing chair of the committee.

"A lot of women put off having a family until those years they would be up for partner," Bergen explained. "So they're now trying to think about how they are going to balance their family and professional needs. Many firms have begun offering other alternative career paths, not necessarily partnerships, which have a somewhat lower degree of stress, and that could possibly be a reason why women aren't aiming for that partnership role. I think long-term if that continues, that is a real problem for the profession."

Aside from professional and personal goals colliding, Bergen said that it's when women come within reach of making partner that discrimination - albeit slight - can surface. "I think that the differentiation doesn't start to take place probably until the manager ranks," she said, adding that she sees women and men in the entry-level ranks of a firm as being on equal ground.

"There it becomes subtle who's mentored, who's invited out to the important dinners with the important clients [and] who's groomed to participate in AICPA and state society committees. All of these are indicative of who is going to be promoted to partner a year or two or three or four into the future."

At RGL - Forensic Accounting and Consultants in Denver, where resumes from women and men arrive at an even pace, it's when women start to approach the managerial positions that their representation decreases, according to Karen Abernathy, CPA, CFE and director of U.S. human resources. Not surprisingly, however, some women have leapfrogged that traditional barrier.

"I've been here seven years and watched women climb the ladder and get up into that partner role and not have a problem with it," Abernathy said. "But I think in some of the older firms, some of the older generation that's still at the top may not understand the flexibility that women need. There still might be just a bit of a bias. But I think as society changes and people realize that women have just as much to bring to the table as men, you're not going to have that issue."

The answer is not about what men can do within the firm, according to Gary Shamis, CPA and managing director of SS&G Financial Services Inc., in Cleveland, but what firms as a whole should do: Give women the same opportunities, training and consideration as their male colleagues. "It is obvious and apparent that the female percentage in the profession is the majority, and yet when you look at the leadership, the percentage of females is in the minority," he wrote via e-mail. "Women need to be in leadership. It only makes sense that they are provided the opportunity to develop skills in senior management."

Though it's the job of the firm as a whole to address how women can advance and come into power, because men are in the majority of leadership positions it is important for them to realize their role in creating a firm's culture and climate.

"Many of the men who are firm leaders are the ones who are going to be responsible for creating the conditions in the firm that are strong for women," Crosley said. "Then women need to see role models and observe other women in the profession who have been incredibly successful."

THE TIMES, THEY ARE A-CHANGIN'

"I think it's a terrific time to be a woman CPA," said Diane Rubin, a CPA and partner with Novogradac & Co. LLC, in San Francisco, and a past chair of the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy. "I think it's economically a very good career for women, it's a stable career, and it's something they can always do. It's one of the few careers that women can participate in and, if they want to, they can leave for a certain amount of time and then resume their career very easily."

Certainly it's gotten easier for women CPAs to navigate their careers, but the struggle still exists.

Ask women who spent the early part of their careers in public accounting what their biggest challenge was, and it's almost always the same: Taking time off to start a family and then returning to work. As a result, many women have traded in the long hours and inflexible schedules of public accounting for their familial responsibilities.

Katy Yeager, vice president and market leader of Accretive Solutions in Silicon Valley, for instance, left Arthur Andersen in the early 1990s after the birth of her daughter, even after the firm asked her to stay. She said that a lack of women role models and a hollow attempt at setting up mothers' programs eventually fueled her decision to move into consulting. "It's just a very difficult situation to manage being a working mom in public accounting because of the hours," Yeager said. "They really tried to get me to stay. The couple of us who were young moms did try to make it work, but it just didn't go anywhere."

Yeager's experience is unique, however. When she went into consulting in 1994 at what is now Accretive Solutions, the firm's staff was primarily women who left public accounting, who had children and were, as a result, on part-time schedules.

"Our firm is a little different in that that's how we grew up as a company," she said. "We now have 200 people here in northern California, so our practice has definitely changed. We now have approximately the same number of men and women and fewer part-time people. However, the work/life balance is something that we live and breathe, because that's why we came here, and the big draw for a lot of people to come here is that work/life balance."

Firms faced with staff shortages are realizing that they have to do a better job in keeping women in the workplace - especially those who are planning to start or have already started a family.

According to a new AICPA committee booklet, Guide to Building a Successful Off-Ramping Program, which encompasses women in accounting, financial services and consulting, 37 percent of professional women will voluntarily leave their jobs - both on a temporary and a permanent basis - and 30 percent will opt to take a flexible work arrangement. On average, according to the findings, off-ramped women are out of the workforce for just over two years, after which 93 percent will attempt to re-enter the workforce. The kicker, however, is that only 5 percent are interested in re-joining the companies they left. For women in the business sector, that percentage is closer to zero.

"The leaving rates overall are pretty even for both men and women," Citigroup's Bergen said. "Even for men, the profession has become somewhat less attractive. The litigation risk, the 24/7 availability - that's hard these days. Men want to spend more quality time with their families and that was a higher priority."

TAKE THE INITIATIVE

To address these issues, many firms have implemented special women's initiatives to work on attracting, retaining and promoting women. They acknowledge that a major attraction is offering a balanced work/life environment. As a result, many firms have found that achieving balance between home and office has become a lure for all employees, and that is gradually helping to revamp an antiquated corporate culture.

At Big Four firm Deloitte & Touche, where women make up roughly 22 percent of the firm's partners, principals and directors, it's been 14 years since the firm's Initiative for the Retention and Advancement of Women was implemented in an effort to create a more inclusive environment and make sure the firm kept its intellectual capital intact, according to audit partner Ven Kocaj, who is national director for the initiative.

She said that today the vision of the program has been slightly altered to drive marketplace growth and create a culture where women want to be. Among their latest projects is a new strategy in the form of a book, Mass Career Customization: Aligning the Workplace with Today's Nontraditional Workforce, written by Deloitte executives Cathleen Benko and Anne Weisberg.

"The whole idea behind career mass customization is really to redesign the work environment so that we give our people more control over how, when and where they work," Kocaj explained, adding that 83 percent of American families are outside of the traditional father-to-work, mother-at-home model. "When you combine the labor shortage and the new generation of workers who are pretty much demanding better work/life balance, the need was somewhat obvious and compelling, if not urgent."

The program changes the image of the corporate ladder to the vertical illustration of a corporate lattice, and allows a manager or supervisor to sit down with their employee and ask them their professional and personal plans to better accommodate their needs, according to Kocaj.

"[It's] acknowledging that people don't just start at the bottom and work their way up in a straight line, that there are times in a person's life where you might want to dial it up or dial it down," she said. "This whole model is intended to give individuals the opportunity to customize their career given where they are in their lives and move it around as life goes on."

While work/life balance continues to be the No. 1 issue for women, networking opportunities both in and out of the firm continue to line up as a significant concern as well.

New York-based Marcum & Kliegman LLP, which has four female partners out of a pool of 40 partners, acknowledged this earlier in the year and started a new Women's Leadership Development Program with a neighboring law firm, in an effort to beef up leadership and try to change their statistics.

"As a professional services firm, the idea of getting your name and the name of the firm out in the community is extremely important; it's important to the firm and it's important to your own advancement," said Carolyn Mazzenga, a partner at Marcum & Kliegman. "We're basically multi-tasking. We're doing professional development workshops but in a networking environment."

Grant Thornton started its Women@Grant Thornton initiative in 2003; now, in addition to being put under a female partner's leadership, the program will report directly to chief executive officer Ed Nusbaum and chief operating officer Shelley Stein, according to Anne Lang, Grant Thornton's U.S. chief human resources officer.

"We're very excited about the direction of Women@Grant Thornton based on the momentum and interest in the program, and actually the success of being able to promote, attract and retain women at higher levels," Lang said.

The initiative is embarking on a new level of coaching and mentoring for women that will include "situational mentoring." The idea is to connect women with others in the firm who are going or have gone through similar experiences in their lives.

Also brewing for GT is a spotlight on helping women network in and out of the firm to enhance business development. To do this, the firm worked with an outside consultant in developing a course for women, as well as setting up key networking activities targeting those in banking and the legal profession. The firm also developed a course on helping women with their "executive presence" to make sure they put their best foot forward in any given situation. To help implement these strategies, each office is designated a project overseer or champion, usually the highest-ranking woman in each office who can oversee the initiative.

"We put these all together in what we call the 'meeting-in-a-box' format," Lang explained, adding that GT beefed up its strategies for recruitment and retention after the firm doubled in size over the last four years, during which they experienced an influx of women, but found their retention statistics disappointing. "We provide the tools, the resources and know-how to get started, so that a champion in each office could actually go out and present the information or involve their respective women in that particular activity."

MORE RESOURCES

Women who want to get plugged into the larger CPA community and network with others in the profession now have an advantage. Technology helps make more programs and resources accessible, as well as promoting a variety of ways to communicate.

Aside from the AICPA Work/ Life and Women's Initiatives 2004 Research report, which is available online on the organization's Web site along with a host of other resources, the committee's off/on-ramping booklet aims to help firms create programs that will support employees when they decide to leave the workplace or come back.

Through technology, training, various mediums of communication, networking opportunities, support circles with others who have chosen to off-ramp, and a well-facilitated on-ramp process, firms can keep in contact with employees to hopefully encourage them to eventually return. Also available is an employee retention guide that offers tips on keeping employees happy and satisfied.

The American Women's Society for CPAs is looking to use technology to its fullest in order to help women reach their goals. Already offering annual conferences, with one slated at the end of this month with the American Society of Women Accountants, the AWSCPA looks to "surround women with opportunities to develop themselves within leadership, networking and education," according to AWSCPA president Jennifer Laudermilch.

The society offers monthly "techcasts" or live interactive conferences streamed over the Internet and on the telephone that address various professional development topics where participants can earn CPE credit, Laudermilch said. Women can also get connected via a list serve, an e-mail group and an online membership directory.

"We're trying to use technology to help people make connections," Laudermilch said, adding that next year will be the society's 75th anniversary, which they will celebrate at their annual conference in Dallas. "One of the things that is still lacking that needs to be further developed is formal networks and mentors."

In May, Crosley, Shamis and noted consultancy The Advisory Board launched the first Forum for Women in Accounting, attracting more than 200 participants. "The objective was to really focus on women and how we develop and grow them, as well as how firms can develop their women's initiatives to create the right conditions in a firm so they are going to be able to attract, retain and develop them into leaders," Crosley said.

Meanwhile, the California Society of CPAs has been busy planning and hosting a Young and Emerging Professionals Conference, and saw a turnout of more than 600 participants for its first event in May. "It was really fantastic," said CalCPA chief executive Loretta Doon. "We were targeting [ages] 20 to 35, but looking at the attendees I'd say you have at least 50 percent women, but the diversity was amazing. It was really trying to target a new market for professionals in our profession."

Sessions at the conference, according to Doon, were specifically designed for its participants' demographic, and included topics such as professional updates, spring-boarding career tips, networking, wealth-building, negotiating, business etiquette, and Doon's favorite, tips on how to work with Baby Boomers.

Especially unique about the conference were the presenters themselves. Facilitators were the same age as the participants, and its population as a whole reflected a large pool of young Asian-American professionals entering into accounting. "The point is, if you want to look at women in the profession," Doon said, "take a look at the people coming into the profession and what that balance and diversity is. Then focus in on that."

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