by Melissa Klein

San Diego -- If you don’t like the system, change it.

That was the message at the 63rd annual conference of the American Society of Women in Accounting here, which bannered the theme “Women Accountants as Catalysts for Change.”

“This conference is about how we can make a difference, not only in our own careers, but in the careers of other women, particularly those in public accounting,” said ASWA president Betsy Ann Scott. “This is about what we can do to foster change.”

While the agenda included the usual accounting topics of legislative updates, as well as tax and financial planning-related discussions, it was laden with non-technical sessions that tackled topics like work/life balance, the advancement of women in the profession, and gender bias.

“One of the biggest issues women in accounting are still dealing with is how to succeed in balancing the demands of a career and a home and a family,” Scott said.

More than 300 women accountants - and a few men - traded best practices and shared their experiences and their ideas for achieving that elusive goal.

“This is one of the few places I can go where everyone understands the issues I’m dealing with,” said Tonia M. Matheny, a CPA from Huntsville, Ala., who has been involved with the ASWA for more than 10 years. “One of the things that attracted me to this conference is that I want to get tools that I can take back with me to help me further my career, and to help me balance my personal and professional life. It’s very re-energizing.”

Kicking off the conference, keynote speaker Nancy Baldiga, an associate accounting professor and author of a book on women’s advancement in the profession, offered several suggestions on how women can become catalysts for change in their own organizations.

In spite of improvements, Baldiga said, women still lag well behind men when it comes to advancing within the accounting profession.

“Despite the fact that more firms have implemented flexible work arrangements in an effort to be more supportive of women, there’s a disturbing trend - no more women are being promoted. The numbers are the same,” Baldiga said.

Baldiga is chair of the Department of Economics and an associate accounting professor at the College of the Holy Cross, and the author of “Promoting Your Talent: A Guidebook for Women and their Firms.”

While women are entering the profession in record numbers, they represent less than 14 percent of partners/shareholders at public accounting firms, and the number of women at senior levels remains low.

Baldiga noted that women still face a number of perceived obstacles to advancement: conflicting stresses, difficulties with practice development, unequal access to leadership and development and networking, inadequate mentoring, difficult firm culture, and a lack of role models.

Baldiga challenged attendees to become catalysts for change in their own organizations, and offered several suggestions on how to go about it.

One way women can drive change at their own companies is to find or be a mentor. “It is extremely critical to have people to help guide you in your career,” Baldiga said. “Young women need someone who knows how it works - knows what it takes to succeed. Mentoring is the greatest way to influence an organization.”

She also stressed the importance of teaching or learning practice development, an area that she said is still largely perceived as an obstacle to advancement for women in public accounting.

“There are still people who think women can’t sell, who still see practice development as being out on the golf course with the boys,” she said. “Practice development is about relationship building. That’s what accounting is. If you’re good at it, teach someone else. If you’re not good at it, become a student.”

Baldiga encouraged women to serve as positive role models. “Being a role model doesn’t mean you have to be a recognized expert,” she noted. “Take stock of your skills. Think about your strengths and weaknesses. Think about the people you wanted to be like, and the people you didn’t want to be like, and evaluate where you are.”

Other ways to become a catalyst for change include encouraging and supporting the use of flexible work arrangements; helping create and joining an internal networking group; establishing relationships with local colleges or universities; identifying opportunities to participate in leadership development programs; communicating with firm leadership; learning what it takes to succeed in your organization; and sharing ideas with top management.

Another critical conference topic dealt with gender bias.

“There have been significant improvements in attitudes and practices conducive to the advancement of women during the past 20 years, but gender bias is still one of the biggest issues women face in the workplace,” Karen A. Hefner told attendees during a workshop sponsored by the Educational Foundation for Women in Accounting.

While there have been gains - there are virtually no fields of work that are closed to women, and women have penetrated the entry-level managerial and professional ranks of all occupations - challenges for women still exist, Hefner said. Women still contend with stereotyping, sexual harassment is still a concern, and women still haven’t broken through the glass ceiling in significant numbers. In addition, women are still frequently denied comparable pay. While Hefner noted that, on average, women receive 75 cents in pay for every dollar that men earn today, she added, “Twenty years ago, that number was 70 cents.”

Among the strategies that Hefner outlined for overcoming external barriers to career success were: forming mentoring groups; exercising more initiative in seeking both positive and negative feedback; sharing what you know about the politics of male interaction in your workplace so you can help others; and increasing efforts to collaborate with men to increase the comfort level that male and female colleagues have with each other.

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