On November 18, 2010, the Illinois CPA Society held a Women’s Leadership Breakfast and presented the AICPA Women to Watch Awards honoring three experienced leaders and two emerging leaders. The audience was composed of females and males (though present in much smaller proportions). While accepting her trophy, one of the award winners commented to her male counterparts: “Now you all know how I feel every time I enter a boardroom!”
How did these women manage to reach and establish themselves into leadership positions?
This achievement is even more remarkable knowing that women only account for nine percent of all CFOs (Catalyst, unpublished data, 2008) and 23 percent (The PCPS Top talent survey: Gaining a Strategic Advantage in Recruiting and Retention, 2006) of all partners in CPA firms nationwide. The accounting profession is faced with an important retention issue as women are entering the profession in record numbers, representing more than half (50%) (AICPA Work/Life and Women’s Initiatives 2004 Research) of newly accredited CPAs in the last 25 years.
These 2010 AICPA Women to Watch Award winners formed a panel and shared their personal and professional experiences. This article divulges a few barriers that the panel experienced and how they were tackled.
Barrier 1: Lack of Confidence
Lack of confidence was seen as more common in women than men. They more easily tend to doubt themselves and fall from the leadership track. Showing confidence is key to making a lasting impression, creating working opportunities and receiving challenging assignments. If you do not believe in yourself, how can your colleagues and business partners believe in you? As a result, women should not downplay their contributions, nor phrase their statements as questions or use an upward inflection at the end of statements, which indicates doubt. Also, women should stand behind their choices and stop second guessing themselves.
Choosing a different career path can be a difficult endeavor, especially when not well received or supported by their surroundings. Women should remind themselves that they know best when it comes to their needs and career goals. Making wrong career decisions is better than passing on a career opportunity and being left wondering, “Where would I be now if I had said yes?” Mistakes are sometimes needed to help us define our own professional aspirations and set individual career goals.
Barrier 2: Lack of Visible Role Models
Research performed by New York-based research firm Catalyst helped to highlight the top three barriers to advancement for women, with preconceptions about women’s roles and abilities being the number one barrier to advancement. Closely following this was the lack of role models women have in their given field, while the ever-present push and pull of work-life issues rounds out the top three.
Regarding just the issue of role models, the lack thereof leads women to sometimes believe that there is no room for them past certain levels within their companies, that an invisible barrier or “glass ceiling” must be stopping their career progression. Also, why persevere at the sacrifice of their personal lives? Why advance if they need to change who they really are, cultivate male traits or tailor their style to be more men friendly?
In reality, women need to seek inspiration from various and visible role models. Role models are unique in that they each have their own personal story of perseverance and success. Women need to pick and choose based on their aspirations and needs: Breaking the glass ceiling, successful integration of professional and personal lives, successful business founders, etc.
Barrier 3: Pressure of Perfection
Women can be on occasion their worst enemy, striving to be 100 percent dedicated to their families and 100 percent dedicated to their work. They can certainly do it all, but it is very difficult to do so at the same time. Women need to adapt their professional lives to answer their personal needs and vice versa.
To help excel in their work, they need a good support system to assist them in their daily routine. The support system can be a helpful partner or parent that can carry a fair load of family chores or outsourcing help with the service of a nanny. Education and nursing students make excellent part-time nannies for children’s afternoon and evening extra-curricular activities and even homework, allowing you to enjoy more quality time with the kids. If you worry about keeping a tidy home, you can teach yourself to let things go, who really cares if the dishes pile up in the sink for a day or two? Hiring a person or service to help clean your house can be money well spent.
Women also need to improve their communication skills. Communication is key as women need to express their concerns (workload, unrealistic deadlines, tight budget, etc) to their supervisors or business partners or they may set themselves up for failure. Learning to say no may sometimes be difficult, but it’s necessary when accepting clients or assignments that may interfere with family plans.
Finally, flexible working arrangements should not be overlooked when life-altering events occur. This option can greatly relieve the stress of caring for an elderly parent or easing the transition from maternity leave.
Barrier 4: Lack of Advocate
Women tend to underestimate the importance of having an advocate: they tend to lean toward good listeners or mentors as opposed to good sponsors. Sponsors go beyond giving advice: they advocate for their protégé, help them gain visibility, pass along challenging assignment opportunities and can shelter them from political issues or complications should they arise.
Women have made great progress today as they can freely wear pants suits and flexible work arrangements are not frowned upon as much as they used to be. Even though we are heading in the right direction thanks to the help of our women pioneers, we still need to create awareness, educate, advocate and advance women in the accounting profession. To explain why closing the gender gap in the accounting profession is so important, here is a final quote from the AICPA (led by its Women’s Initiatives Executive Committee): A diverse profession is a sustainable profession.
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Yasmine El-Ramly, CPA, is a project manager at the AICPA, and specializes in women’s initiatives and human capital projects. Previously, she worked in public accounting with three different CPA firms of different sizes.