“Imagine a gender-equal world. A world free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination. A world that’s diverse, equitable, and inclusive. A world where difference is valued and celebrated. Together, we can forge women’s equality. Collectively, we can all #BreakTheBias.” — International Women’s Day Website. We have been striving for an accounting and finance profession that actively works to address and break biases. In recognition of International Women’s Day, we celebrate the progress that has been made and acknowledge the work left to be done.
Breaking biases and barriers share inevitable parallels. Representation always matters. The more women are present, visible and respected in their professions, the easier bias-breaking becomes. In 1987, a Journal of Accountancy article noted that, although women have been a part of the accounting and finance profession since its inception in the U.S., the large concentration of women was a recent development. While some professions have regressed in representation, accounting and finance continued to forge ahead with women within the ranks. Globally, the proportion of women studying accounting is also close to parity with men.
Successes and areas for improvement co-exist
Gender equality is a fundamental human right that is necessary for a sustainable world. The global gender gap in economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival and political empowerment is persistent. Data from the World Economic Forum shows that it will take 135.6 years to close the gender gap worldwide.
There is some good news for women in the U.S. accounting and finance field. According to U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics 2020 demographic data, women make up 59.7% of all accountants and auditors and 52.6% of financial managers. These numbers mirror the AICPA’s data, showing that at all levels of the profession — from interns to senior managers — women are well-represented and often exceed the number of men at firms ranging from two to 99 CPAs. In these firms, women make up more than or almost 50% of employees at these levels. At the director and non-equity partners level, women represent over 40% of employees and are also at least 40% of employees at all levels in firms with more than 100 CPAs.
While we celebrate these successes, we know there is still much work to be done. Women in all countries face earnings gaps. If women could have the same lifetime earnings as men, global wealth could increase by $172 trillion. Additionally, representation of women in leadership, as well as racial and ethnic diversity is lacking. Our data illustrates that only 23% of partners are women and they are underrepresented on executive committees. Additionally, Catalyst research consistently demonstrates the dearth of women of color in accounting and financial services. More data is also needed on the international status of women in accounting and finance.
Using DEI initiatives to break bias
Don’t underestimate the role of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives as a concrete step the accounting and finance profession can take to break the bias and foster gender equality. Companies need to drive change and deeply invest in all aspects of DEI, including trying to ensure women of diverse identities are well-represented and a culture that fully leverages the benefits of diversity is encouraged.
McKinsey’s latest report on Women in the Workplace illustrates DEI’s role in bias-breaking, including training to help people understand and mitigate unconscious biases. McKinsey notes that women of color continue to face significant bias and discrimination at work, while the International Labour Organization research shows that unconscious bias is a significant barrier to career advancement for all women. Businesses must equip employees, at all levels, to challenge bias and be allies. Systems and workers that speak out against discrimination, mentor or sponsor women of all backgrounds, or take other actions to advocate for them are valuable.
Association staff weighs in
Susan S. Coffey, CPA, CGMA, Chief Executive Officer of Public Accounting, the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, says, “I have seen a remarkable change in firm attitudes toward supporting and promoting equity and women in leadership. I have been fortunate to have the support of both men and women as allies, sponsors and advocates throughout my career. It’s important to recognize how this kind of backing can enhance career trajectory. Programs deliberately intended to provide sponsorship and advocacy should be encouraged and rewarded.”
“I am heartened to see diversity, equity and inclusion [DEI] gaining momentum in recent times,” said Irene Teng, Executive Vice President of Global Markets, the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants. “But it is not enough to simply talk about DEI. We must believe it, work at it and inspire our fellow women to reach greater heights. Together, we share a common future. We will have greater strength to carve that future so women all over the world are recognized for the important roles they play in society and the economy. Progress for women is progress for all of us.”
“I have seen firsthand the power of DEI initiatives in both changing hearts and minds and having a tangible positive impact on the well-being and advancement opportunities of all women in the profession. If we are committed to doing better, we can be better and create more diverse, equitable and inclusive workplaces for women in accounting, finance and beyond,” says Crystal Cooke, Diversity & Inclusion Director, the AICPA.
A call to action
Join us as we celebrate women around world. Share your stories and insights on your social media platforms about how we can work together to #BreakTheBias in accounting and finance. Also, check out our International Women's Day video created to honor the amazing women who contribute to the growth of this profession.