Advancement of women in public accounting
Revitalizing progress after a decade of flat statistics
Kristine DeVinck, CPA, MBA, EdD | December 2020/January 2021 Footnote
Editor's note: Updated November 30, 2020
Career choices abound for women in accounting today. Yet, women continue to be underrepresented in the leadership of public accounting firms and are not progressing to the top of the profession at the same rate as their male counterparts.
The AICPA’s most recent statistics show that although women represent 50% of new hires in public accounting, only 22% of partners and principals are women. Most concerning — despite a significant focus on the retention and advancement of women — is that these numbers have been relatively flat for the past decade. Why?
Accounting firms spend significant resources training, coaching and advising their employees, raising them up to be strong, confident, talented professionals in their organizations. As these individuals become technically proficient and earn promotions in their firms, women and men alike become strong leaders in the profession. However, women continue to drop out of the public accounting workforce at a far greater rate than their male colleagues before securing the executive leadership positions.
As part of my research, I explored the public accounting industry and studied career experiences of seven women navigating both work and home responsibilities. Through this work, I discovered the strategies these women use — personally and professionally — to make it to the top of their firms.
The reality of parents, especially working mothers, may hold one of the keys. Parents oftentimes experience a double-bind when they are pulled in two different directions, resembling a tug-of-war between work and home. Today, men and women share responsibility for family obligations to a larger extent than past generations. Women, however, often continue to accept an unequal share of this responsibility. Learning from the experiences of women with children at home who achieve leadership positions in their firms has the potential to provide a roadmap for coaching
the next generation of women to become leaders in the profession.
These women chose public accounting for myriad reasons: They enjoy the work and appreciate the camaraderie with clients and teams; they recognize the flexibility available in the industry and workplace; and they embrace the unique challenges and opportunities to add value to their clients and firms. Moreover, the women attracted to public accounting appreciate the opportunity to collaborate with high-caliber individuals and to influence the professional development of others in the workplace.
Common themes among women leaders
Interviews with female partners and directors identified different viable options and numerous decision points as each person navigated individual career paths to leadership in public accounting. Although each career path was unique, these interviews revealed the presence of common themes embedded in these women’s varied experiences — themes which may shed light on continued flat retention and advancement statistics.
Aggregate data revealed the presence of four common core themes essential to achieving their leadership positions in public accounting: self-awareness
, development of a distinctive skill set
, support of mentors and role models
, and family support
. Throughout their work and home experiences, the significance of flexibility, communication, intentionality and realistic expectations infused these common themes.
Women who are successful in firm leadership know who they are — both good and bad — and what they expect of themselves, embracing the notion of self-awareness
. These women spend significant time and effort gaining a thorough knowledge of themselves. They identify their strengths and weaknesses; they focus their development efforts and adjust where and when necessary. Through this process, these leaders strive to be honest with themselves and with those around them. They spend time on their most personal and foundational asset — themselves. These women seriously consider their relationships, expectations, desires, boundaries, limitations, hopes and aspirations. They dedicate time to consider realistic alternatives in all facets of life. In today’s fast-paced, achievement-oriented, acquisition-focused society, these women make well-informed, thoughtful decisions that support achieving their career, personal and family priorities.
Distinctive skill set
In addition to knowing themselves thoroughly, early in their career, these women assume the responsibility to seek opportunities to develop and enhance their own unique portfolio of qualifications, thereby developing a distinctive skill set
. They make well-informed, intentional decisions to equip themselves with technical, relational, advisory and networking skills. This enables them to continually build their portfolio of qualifications to become integral leaders in their practice and industry.
Mentors, role models
Also integral to these leaders are supportive individuals. Each of the women interviewed recognizes and acknowledges the importance of their reliance on mentors and role models
to provide sound career advice. Many highlight the critical importance of both male and female mentors for their career advancement. Also notable is the fact that the presence of female role models who successfully balance life as both a professional leader and as a mother is particularly helpful to show future leaders that it is possible to do both.
To help maintain their family’s desired lifestyle, these women identify the need for good family support
. Primarily made up of a strong partner, extended family and a network of supportive friends, this personal support network mirrors the mentoring relationships in the workplace. In addition to sharing the daily family routines, these working mothers receive encouragement and emotional support from these individuals. For mothers who are professionals in the workplace, having a positive primary relationship at home enables them to be more effective and more efficient in the workplace. In addition, the importance of their personal involvement in community activities, their children’s activities, and outside experiences helps in their ability to be a better parent, friend, colleague, citizen and partner themselves.
These common themes — self-awareness, distinctive skill set, mentors and role models
, and family support
— establish a foundation on which to build a career in public accounting. But women are not choosing to build long-term careers in public accounting in numbers comparable to their male colleagues. Despite continued development of numerous initiatives to promote the retention and advancement of highly talented women, we are no longer seeing a steady increase in the presence of women in leadership in public accounting. Why has the momentum slowed?
The expectations and experiences of new hires today are different than those who have traveled the path before them. The developmental experiences of these individuals are more diverse than they have ever been. The needs of an increasingly diverse workforce will be as unique as the individuals themselves. More people entering the workplace today expect to navigate dual income families including two demanding career paths. And the reality of parents will drive much of the support needed.
It is time for an in-depth analysis to determine which initiatives continue to be effective in today’s environment and which may have unintended negative consequences. In 2020, most people beginning a career in public accounting were not born when initiatives to improve the retention and advancement of women were first implemented. The good news is that increasing the percent of female partners and directors is both practical and obtainable.
Kristine DeVinck, CPA, MBA, EdD is an accounting faculty member at the University of St. Thomas. She has more than 20 years of experience working with undergraduate and graduate students, specializing in financial accounting and professional development. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-962-5129.