Women's roles at CPA firms came under scrutiny during the Joint National Conference, a collaborative event coordinated by the American Society of Women Accountants and the American Woman's Society of CPAs.

Gale Crosley, CPA, president of Crosley & Co., an Atlanta-based consulting firm, shared stories of working with male counterparts and the challenges of changing the mentality in her work environment.

"Four or five years ago, people weren't talking about women, but now it's flooding up," Crosley said. She noted that there are 108,000 women CPAs today, a number that constitutes almost one-third of the profession. "We are a formidable force in our profession now," she said.

Women face a variety of issues in the accounting profession, ranging from being called "girl" or "cute" to not being allowed to go out with a male client without another male colleague present.

One of the biggest challenges is getting men to understand the need for women's programs within the firm. Crosley noted that nearly 60 percent of accounting graduates are women. However, women represent only about 30 percent of the managers at firms, and only 18 percent of partners.

A major reason for the low percentage is that by the time women are ready to reach the partner level, their priorities have changed and they are ready to start families.

"The culture just is not supportive of what people need when they come up through their career," Crosley said.

She wants to get the message across that enhancing women's careers is good for business. Issues around work/life balance continue to be a barrier to women's advancement.

Crosley believes women face personal impediments such as difficulty establishing credibility and confidence, and the reality of having to deal with mostly male decision-makers who "pat you on the head and treat you like their daughter."

Women are natural business developers because of their relationship-building and communication skills, Crosley said. They need to undo the cultural conditioning of being passive and become initiators.

Crosley believes it's crucial to have top-level management support during the process. "Women's programs can help to reshape the firm," she said.

The firm of the future, according to Crosley, will have female partners in the majority, include total flexibility, implement training, mentoring and networking, and be family-friendly.

"The best way to produce your own future is to create it," she said.

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