insight magazine

Women: What Our Business Models Are Missing

It’s not ambition, it’s culture, that’s keeping women out of the accounting and finance leadership pipeline. By Derrick Lilly | Digital Exclusive - 2018


There’s this tricky, touchy, lingering theory out there that not many like to talk about: Women don’t miss out on the top spots at firms and companies because they’re not skilled or capable, or because the roles aren’t available — women miss out on leadership roles because they simply don’t want them. And marriage and motherhood trump all — except they don’t.


The truth is that women begin their careers with as much desire to lead as their male counterparts, and the biggest hurdle for advancing women into leadership is actually tied to an organization’s culture. At least that’s what two global surveys of more than 200,000 participants led by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) conclude.

“Women’s ambition levels do vary, but they vary by company, not by family status. When companies create a positive culture and attitude regarding gender diversity, all women — mothers included — are eager to advance,” BCG states in “Dispelling the Myths of the Gender ‘Ambition Gap.’” 

In other words, “the problem is neither inherent nor related to motherhood; instead, it hinges on the day-to-day experiences of women at work. Ambition is not a fixed attribute but is nurtured — or damaged — by the daily interactions, conversations, and opportunities that women face over time,” BCG continues.

So, what does it say about the culture we’ve created in the accounting and finance profession when women make up half of all accounting education program enrollees1, and nearly 60 percent2 of all accountants and auditors in the U.S., yet they hold less than 25 percent3 of firm partner roles? What does it say about our business culture when less than 7 percent4 of S&P 500 CEOs are women, but women account for more than 44 percent of total employment within those same companies? What does it say when fewer than 14 percent5 of Fortune 500 CFOs are women? And what does it say when women make up less than 19 percent6 of corporate board members?

“The representation of women in leadership positions hasn’t changed much since I was in public accounting almost 30 years ago,” says Illinois CPA Society CFO & COO Jennifer Schultz, CPA. “That is really discouraging to talented women working in all areas of our profession. It’s clearly time for organizations to focus less on ‘What’s wrong with women?’ and more on ‘What’s wrong with us?’”


Let’s be clear, women aren’t looking for preferential treatment — they’re looking for equality and inclusion; they’re looking for the same opportunities every other skilled accounting and finance professional seeks, and they’re increasingly looking for firm and company mindsets to change.

BCG’s findings are unequivocal: Having children doesn’t affect a woman’s desire to lead. In fact, BCG’s research reveals that the ambition levels of women with and without children track each other nearly identically — within 1 percentage point — over time and across all age groups. So, instead of questioning women’s ambitions to lead, organizations would be better served by questioning whether their own business models and cultures are truly supporting women’s advancement into leadership.

Consider this: BCG’s data reflects no ambition gaps between genders at organizations where employees, both male and female, feel that gender diversity is improving. In fact, BCG found women and men to be more ambitious at companies committed to gender equality — the ambition of women in middle management, particularly, averages over 20 percentage points higher at organizations committed to retaining women. On the other hand, organizations with employees reporting little progress on diversity, where “women see an uphill battle to reach an unattractive summit,” see ambition gaps emerge.

“In short, when women work at companies where leadership looks achievable and enjoyable, they will strive to get there,” BCG says. “Conversely, when the struggle to reach the top doesn’t seem worth it, women are more likely to make the entirely rational decision to step off the leadership track.”

What’s perplexing about the ongoing struggle for gender equality in our accounting and finance and business worlds is that there’s a clear business case for advancing women into leadership.


A comprehensive study of 21,980 companies across 91 countries, conducted by Ernst & Young (EY) and The Peterson Institute for International Economics, reveals that businesses that include women in management and create gender-diverse pipelines consistently experience more economic growth and profitability than companies where women are excluded from executive positions.

The study’s report, “Is Gender Diversity Profitable? Evidence From a Global Survey,” reasons that a leadership team comprised of merely 30 percent women can contribute an additional 6 percentage points towards a company’s net margin.

Along similar lines, “having three women on a corporate board represents a ‘tipping point’ in terms of influence, which is reflected in financial performance,” MSCI ESG Research says.

In analyzing U.S. companies over a five-year period (2011-2016), MSCI, an independent provider of research for institutional investors, discovered that the companies that began the period with at least three women on their boards experienced median gains in return on equity (ROE) of 10 percentage points and earnings per share (EPS) of 37 percent. During the same period, companies that began the period with no female directors experienced median declines in ROE and EPS of 1 and 8 percentage points.

“Such superior performance from companies with at least three female board members may derive from better decision-making by a more diverse group of directors, as some studies hypothesize. But outperformance may also be tied to greater gender diversity among senior leadership and the rest of the workforce, which historically has correlated with reduced turnover and higher employee engagement,” MSCI states in its 2016 report, “The Tipping Point: Women on Boards and Financial Performance.” 

This begs the question: If profitability can be driven so significantly by so few women at the highest board and executive levels, what impact would equally employing women across all leadership levels have?

The good news for organizations that haven’t yet adopted business models that attract and support cultures of gender equality and inclusion? Making leadership more inclusive and aspirational — thus improving the diversity of teams and, ultimately, the bottom line — is entirely within an organization’s control.


“Organizational culture shapes the day-to-day experience of employees in a thousand small and large ways — the attitude of managers, the evaluations and career advice people receive, the comments they hear, and many other seemingly minor, everyday factors,” BCG says.

This means creating a welcoming, motivating, diverse, and inclusive culture starts from the top. You’ve all likely heard that before but saying it and doing it are two very different things.

Many organizations today are launching diversity committees, women-only development and mentoring programs, and making efforts to hire more women. As respectable as these motions are, they’re simply not meaningful without leadership that truly believes in making change.

The Illinois CPA Society, for example, has made purposeful efforts to bring the right mix of talent and diversity together to create an equal and inclusive team: The CFO & COO is an accomplished working mother, over 60 percent of the staff is female, led by a team of directors that’s roughly 59 percent female and 41 percent male. Among the board of directors, eight of 19 seats are filled by women, with the top nominated role of chair being filled by a woman for two consecutive terms — and both are mothers.

“Our talented team reflects different genders, ethnicities, ages, backgrounds, and experiences,” Schultz says. “It’s so important to have this diverse team bringing different perspectives and new ideas to the table as we all work together to achieve our mission of enhancing the value of the CPA profession.”

As much as we must all strive to bring together diverse and inclusive teams, and to put forward related and meaningful initiatives and business models that support them, we must also strive to protect the cultures we aim to create. Simply, the undermining of a meaningful diversity agenda and organizational culture cannot be tolerated. From the top down, the right team, a team that subscribes and lives up to what your culture stands for, is what’s needed to sustain it and thrive in it. This means being more strategic with hiring and retention and, for many, it may mean hiring slow and firing fast. It also means being transparent.

Crafting a clear and concise company culture and diversity agenda that’s documented and communicated — and committed to by all within your organization — will go a long way in attracting, advancing, and retaining a team that not only believes in your mission, but one that also works to achieve and advance that mission. Crafting a clear cultural agenda also gives you a baseline to measure your progress against and helps identify the efforts worth celebrating and the shortfalls worth working on.

In the end, “the road to the C-suite is not a single track, and leaders do not come in only one flavor,” BCG says. “By creating the right organizational culture, companies can promote the ambition of both men and women and tap into a wider pool of talent to create the kind of leadership team needed to win in the future.”

“Partners, CEOs, business leaders, we challenge you to lead by example, to be role models for advancing diversity and inclusion, not only within your organizations but within our profession,” says Illinois CPA Society President and CEO Todd Shapiro. “It has to start with you, because even the most promising intentions and initiatives mean nothing without authentic buy-in from leadership. You can promise the best culture. You can say you value diversity and inclusion. You can talk about doing all the ‘right’ things. But, if you have a business model that contradicts all of it, if your words say one thing but your actions speak another, it’s all for naught.”
Sources: (1) AICPA; (2) Bureau of Labor Statistics; (3) AICPA’s Women’s Initiatives Executive Committee; (4) Fortune; (5) Spencer Stuart; (6) McKinsey & Company.

This article is part of the INSIGHT Special Feature "The Culture Conflicts." To explore more about the cultural challenges within the accounting and finance profession, and hear more about the business case for bring more women into the leadership ranks, download the full report or read the other articles in the series: "When Women Invest, Investments Win" and "Work-Life Imbalanced."

1 comment

Leave a comment
  1. lisa | Mar 31, 2021
    In the end, “the road to the C-suite is not a single track, and leaders do not come in only one flavor,” BCG says. “By creating the right organizational culture, companies can promote the ambition of both men and women and tap into a wider pool of talent to create the kind of leadership team needed to win in the future.”

    Leave a comment