Keeping the Best & Brightest: A Focus on Women in the Profession

March 2, 2010

In 1950, when a woman applied for a job, she had to include her height and weight on her resume. Since then, women in the CPA profession – and in the workforce as a whole – have made great progress with regard to advancement and opportunities for leadership. According to the groundbreaking Shriver Report released in 2009, for the first time in our nation’s history, women are half of all U.S. workers and mothers are the primary breadwinners or co-breadwinners in nearly two-thirds of American families. This is a dramatic shift from just a generation ago (in 1967 women made up only one-third of all workers). 


AICPA’s Focus on Women

As part of its focus on the CPA pipeline – that is the number and quality of people entering and leaving the profession – the AICPA has been making strides to educate its members on trends and issues affecting women CPAs.


In 1989, the AICPA created the Upward Mobility of Women Task Force in response to the increase in the number of women in the profession, and to address the issues of work/life balance that naturally come with more working mothers. Over the years, that task force evolved into what is now the Women’s Initiatives Executive Committee (WIEC), the AICPA’s driving force for women’s programs and outreach.


The WIEC’s goal is to promote a work environment that provides opportunities for the advancement of women to leadership positions, and the successful integration of personal and professional lives. To accomplish this, the WIEC has created a number of resources and outreach programs to educate and support both individual women and organizations. Here we cover the trends and challenges, outline some strategies for success, and provide an overview of some of the valuable resources the AICPA and the WIEC have developed to help.


The Business Case

Addressing the issue of women’s retention and advancement is not just a “nice” thing to do – it is a strategic business imperative. If the WIEC had a mantra, it would be this: It’s all about the business case. Women are making some gains, but the overall trends are cause for concern:

  •  Companies with at least three women on their board of directors FAR out-perform those with fewer: Return on equity is 53% higher, return on sales is 42% higher, and return on invested capital is 66% higher.[1]
  • In 2008, women were 55% of all new hires into public accounting.  In fact for more than 20 years, women have been roughly 50% of all new hires, and yet they are only 23% of partners.[2]
  • Over their careers, 37% of professional women will voluntarily leave the workforce temporarily or permanently. The average length of time that these “off-ramped” women are gone is only 2.2 years, after which 93% will re-enter the workforce.  Of these, only 5% wants to return to the company they left.[3]
  • Staff retention, succession planning, and work/life balance are perennially among the top concerns for firm leaders.[4]

Considering all this – the number of women entering the profession, their impact on business, and the concerns about retention and succession planning – it makes sense for an organization to take a look at how women are moving (or not moving) through its own pipeline. It can be a sensitive issue, but if you focus the discussion on the data and make a strong business case, it makes it easier to get buy-in. Numbers are hard to argue with.


Barriers and Proven Solutions

This is not a simple issue of gender differences or discrimination. Each woman has her own story, for instance, some are opting out of leadership positions because they fear taking on additional risk in roles that may not offer adequate personal flexibility others are citing issues surrounding lack of career advocacy, work/life integration, and visible role models.  Here we discuss these factors and offer some proven solutions on how to tackle them.


Barrier 1: Career Advocacy

Many think of career advocates as simply mentors.  Certainly, having a mentor is a key part of the advocacy framework, but there’s more to it than that. It is also about having access to networking opportunities, leadership development, getting stretch assignments, and creating a customized career path. Women often do not have the same access to these advocacy experiences as their male counterparts, so without targeted efforts, women will continue to be perceived as less experienced than their male peers.



1.       Develop a Mentoring Program

When asked about the keys to their success, high achieving women universally cite a mentor as a major factor in their advancement. And yet, many women report difficulty finding and formalizing a mentoring relationship. It may feel uncomfortable to reach out to a superior and ask for guidance, but doing so can reap huge rewards. A mentor can help establish a career plan, offer insight and advice about potential challenges, and serve as a sounding board for ideas and career related decisions. 

2.        Start a Women’s Leadership Programs

Firms and organizations are recognizing that a business model in which more than half of their incoming talent pool is not likely to reach the highest levels of leadership is unsustainable in the long term. To address the issue, many are developing programs that provide business development, advocacy and networking opportunities.  In addition to keeping more of their female talent engaged and upwardly mobile, these firms are gaining a competitive edge in recruiting – all of which positively impact their bottom line. 


Barrier 2: Work/Life Integration

This is not solely a women’s issue, but the WIEC finds that women are more impacted by these issues in the workplace because women are sill handling most of the family’s child care and home responsibilities, despite trends that indicate there are a growing number of “Mr. Mom” exceptions out there. Flexibility is key, but there also needs to be some business and culture shifts as well. Organizations need to be careful that the very programs they employ to keep talented women aren’t also hindering them from getting ahead. Ultimately, flexible work schedules will evolve into flexible career paths as organizations learn that one size does not fit all.  One size fits, well, one.



1.       Offer Flexible Work Arrangements

It’s been said there are two kinds of organizations: those who have flexibility, and those who will. Flexible work arrangements and alternate career paths allow firms to be unique and adapt to their employees and market, which results in a better value proposition. Some organizations offer telecommuting, reduced or compressed work weeks, job-sharing, seasonal hours, or a combination of options.  {Tools: Work/Life: Striking a Balance (video) and PCPS Work/Life and Retention Toolbox Series.}


2.       Keep Off-Ramped Employees and Alumni Connected

Over their careers, 37% of professional women will voluntarily leave the workforce, usually to care for children or again family members. On average, these off-ramped employees are gone for just over 2 years, after which 93% will attempt to re-enter the workforce.  Of these, less than 5% want to return to the organization they left. But many organizations are seeing this as an opportunity – not a loss.  By creating alumni networks and off-ramping programs, organizations are able to maintain strong relationships with these employees and tap them for future employment, temporary work, new business leads, and more.


3.       Offer Part-Time Partnerships

More and more, we’re hearing about female superstars who want to pursue ownership being passed over for partner positions – not because they are qualified, but because they’re on some sort of flexible work arrangement. Women far “out-flex” men when it comes to work schedules, and if a firm isn’t equipped to handle a part-time partner, those who opt for flexible work arrangements are naturally at a disadvantage when it comes to selecting new partners. While the idea of a part-time partner falls well outside the firm’s traditional structure, it can be done. 

4.       Employee Retention Programs

There are lots of low and medium cost ways to improve morale and keep your talent happy – even during busy season, when flexible work arrangements are often nixed or reduced. 


Barrier 3: Visible Role Models

Catalyst, a nonprofit organization helping women succeed in business, reports that the absence of visible role models is a significant barrier to advancement. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle – the lack of women leaders makes it more difficult for other women to rise to the top.


Many of these solutions may be included as part of a larger organization-wide women’s initiative, but they might also be broken up in to smaller pieces and implemented independently, or on an as-needed basis.




1.       Women’s Forums

Give your women leaders a chance to tell their stories.  In your organization’s communications or events, make sure you allow a platform to highlight high achievers, especially women.


2.       Networking/Development Opportunities

Provide specific events for your women to get together.  These events could be educational, or social, but we recommend focusing in some part on leadership development. 

Where We’re Headed

The bottom line is, in order to be sustainable, firms and organizations need to figure out a way to maximize the contributions all employees can make to the profession and that means ensuring that women are advancing to the highest levels of leadership. As the advancement of women goes, so goes the firm of the future. 




[1] “The Bottom Line: Corporate Performance and Women's Representation on Boards” Catalyst (2007)

[2] “2009 TRENDS Report on the Supply & Demand Within the Accounting Profession” AICPA (2009)

[3] “Building Bridges: Guide to a Successful Off-Ramping Program” AICPA (2008)

[4] PCPS MAP Top Issues Survey