Narrowing the Gender Gap at the Top 

    by The PCPS Team                                                                                            

    Let’s face it.  There have been countless discussions around women in the workplace and the challenges that female practitioners face in climbing the ranks.  So much in fact that you may be wondering “What’s left to say and do?” Despite the positive strides that have been made in recent years, the numbers from the 2013 Trends in the Supply of Accounting Grads and the Demand for Public Accounting Recruits remind us that there is more work to be done.   A closer look tells us that while women have gained more equal footing among the entry level ranks, the gender gap widens substantially at the partner level where males continue to be the measuring stick.  A decline in female partners plus increased hiring expectations and voids created by retiring partners create an even greater need to move past this issue.  By closing the gender gap at the top, we will create more diverse, inclusive cultures that provide competitive advantages and sustainability to organizations and the profession as a whole.

    CPA Firm Demographics
      2009-2010 2011-2012
    Classification  Male  Female  Male  Female 
    Professional Staff  55% 45% 56% 44%
    Partners  79% 21% 81% 19%

    Think this is a struggle unique to the CPA community?  Think again.  These numbers are very similar to those in law firms as seen in the chart below.

    Law Firm Demographics1
    2009-2010 2011-2012
    Classification Male Female Male Female
    Associates  55% 45% 55% 45%
    Partners 81% 19% 81% 19%

    The challenge extends beyond the professional services sector, too.  Just consider these stats from other areas of the US economy:
    • 46.9%   Labor force of women in business2
    • 20%   US Senate seats held by women3
    • 17.9%   US House of Representative seats held by women3
    • 14.3%   Executive officer positions held by women4
    • 10.8%  CFO positions in Fortune 500 companies held by women5 
    • 7.1%  CEO positions in Utilities held by women6
    • 4.5%   CEO positions in Fortune 1000 companies held by women7
    • 4.2%  CEO positions in Fortune 500 companies held by women7

    Putting Our Strengths to Work
    The good news is this - we are a community of problem solvers by nature.  That’s just what we do.  So no matter where our individual organizations are on their journeys to find solutions, it is critical that practitioners, both male and female come together and work toward a solution.  Why?  Talent is an organization’s top asset.  And it is this talent that defines an organization, attracts more diversity and fuels growth.8  What’s more, an organization’s sustainability and competitive advantage rely on its ability to attract, retain and advance that top talent.  One thing is for sure.  While this imperative is not going to be easy to achieve, it is critical to the success and the future of the profession.

    A Closer Look at the Barriers 
    When considering solutions, it’s first essential to examine the barriers to entry.  The AICPA’s Women’s Initiatives Executive Committee (WIEC), through its extensive research, provides us with a clearer understanding of them.  They remind us that these same barriers can become success factors or “barriers to exit” when appropriate solutions are offered.

    • Career advocacy/advancement – While many firms have mentoring programs to coach professionals, both male and female, on career related issues, there is a lack of advocacy or sponsorship for females.  This is due to the tendency to help those who remind us of ourselves.  It is these sponsorships that often result in advanced leadership roles for men.  The same is true with high profile assignments, targeted experiences necessary for advancement and networking opportunities that raise one’s knowledge of clients and the organization.
    • Lack of visible female role models – With so few women at the top, it is difficult for up and coming females to believe that they can aspire to these roles.  Not to mention a lack of women to network with and the ability to gain advocacy on the path to advancement.
    • Work/life integration – The struggle to balance career and family is also significant to turnover.  Women continue to be impacted more often by these issues due to societal norms such as child care, elder care and home responsibilities.

    Recent research revealed in Harvard Business Review echoes WIEC findings that the toughest hurdles are often unconscious, unintentional and imbedded in the company’s culture.  This is becoming known as “second generation” bias and builds powerful yet subtle, often invisible barriers for women.  These often arise from cultural assumptions, organizational structures, and practices that inadvertently benefit men and put women at a disadvantage.9

    Moving Forward
    The path forward involves addressing these tough issues head on.  It’s all about developing and incorporating initiatives that are well supported and have active involvement by those at the top.  Consider these five strategies.   

    1. Review your firm’s plan to attract, retain and grow top talent
      • Is it focused on building an inclusive, diverse organization?
      • Is it supported at the top?
      • Is it led by someone with the passion and credibility to drive change?
      • Is it well integrated into your firm’s overall leadership initiatives?
      • Does it contribute to the ongoing advancement of women to top ranks in your organization?
      • Does it include alternative partnerships and career paths?
      • Does your organization provide flexible work schedules and flexible employee benefits that encourage equal participation?
    2. Discuss barriers to closing the gender gap
      Chances are good that many people do not realize these barriers exist, not to mention that they could be contributing to the problem unintentionally. 
      • Identify the barriers, including second generation bias in roundtable educational sessions
      • Bring them to life with examples, stories and best practices
      • Ask questions:
        • Am I contributing to this issue without realizing it?
        • Am I falling victim to these issues?
        • What can our firm do to build a more diverse, inclusive environment?
        • What can I do to remove these barriers? 
    3. Provide ongoing networking with top leaders, high profile assignments, leadership training and sponsorships for emerging talent 
      • Are these activities happening by chance or by design?  
      • Are they being embraced by your firm’s top leaders?
      • Are they closing the gap or simply targeting a limited percentage of the top talent?
    4. Provide Visible Female Role Models
      To reinforce the importance of women in leadership roles, it’s essential for emerging talent to see females in action regularly.  That means hearing their stories, observing their leadership styles and understanding what is key to their success.  Support and encourage participation in:
      • Women’s networking events
      • Women’s conferences
      • Women in leadership training
      • Events with high performing female referral sources such as bankers, attorneys and CFOs 
    5. Track advancements, losses too
      It’s no secret that what gets measured gets attention and results.
      • What metrics are you tracking?
      • Are you discussing ongoing advancements in leadership meetings?
      • Are you exploring the losses and contributing factors?
      • Are you considering new ways to overcome losses and other roadblocks?

    For more tools, tips and resources that you can put to use in your firm, check out the Women in the Profession section on the AICPA’s website.  You will also find a team of professionals that are available to help you and your colleagues put these tools to work in your organization. 

    1. Catalyst Research (2012) http://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/us-women-law-associates-vs-partners-2011
      NALP (2011) http://www.nalp.org/uploads/PressReleases/2011WomenandMinoritiesPressRelease.pdf
    2. Catalyst Research (2013) 
    3. Center for American Women and Politics. “Women in the US Congress 2013” Center for American Women (2013)
      Catalyst Research (2013) http://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/women-government
    4. Catalyst Research (2013) 
    5. Bloomberg (2013) http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-02-06/women-cfos-reach-record-level-in-u-s-as-top-job-remains-elusive.html
    6. Catalyst Research (2013) http://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/women-us-utilities-0
    7. Catalyst Research (2013) http://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/women-ceos-fortune-1000
    8. The Attraction of Women Leaders: Strategies for Organizational Sustainability By Mary L. Bennett, Crowe Horwath LLP, AICPA Women’s Initiatives Executive Committee
    9. Harvard Business Review (September 2013) Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers by Herminia Ibarra, Robin Ely, and Deborah Kolb


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