insight magazine

Inspiring Women to Take the Lead

In expanding its Women’s Mentoring Circles, the Illinois CPA Society hopes to advance more women into accounting and finance leadership roles. By Nancy Clarke | Fall 2019


In a 2011 LinkedIn survey of 1,000 women professionals, 80 percent said having a mentor was important, but only 20 percent had a mentor. That gap has narrowed some today thanks to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s efforts to popularize mentoring circles—peer-to-peer group mentoring programs enabling like-minded colleagues within an organization to come together in the name of professional advancement—but there’s still work to be done, particularly among organizations struggling to advance women into their leadership ranks.

This trend is not new to the Illinois CPA Society. Recognizing how mentoring could help resolve the underrepresentation of women in the accounting and finance profession’s leadership ranks, the Mentoring Subcommittee was created in 2006 by the then- Women’s Executive Committee and was tasked with identifying new programs and services that would benefit the Society’s women members—enter Women’s Mentoring Circles.

Women tend to focus more on their own weaknesses rather than their strengths. On the other hand, they are quick to see others’ strengths and desire to support them. So, the Circles’ overarching goal is to bring women of all experience levels and backgrounds together to create a safe place for mutual sharing, encouragement, and empowerment. Circle members, usually between five and eight women per Circle, choose a topic—either personal or professional—for a group discussion. The Circle leader spearheads the discussion, and the leader role rotates among the group, so all members have a chance to build their confidence, improve their leadership skills, and engage in meaningful career development through lively facilitation.

“The Circles are more beneficial than traditional networking. With a standard one-to-one discussion, you need to know how to ask the question or frame the problem and then hope that the other party has the appropriate knowledge,” explains Melody Ragan, CPA, CGMA, controller and finance manager at Schiff Hardin LLP. “With multiple opinions and various backgrounds of experience, you get multiple points of view. Think of cooking eggs. There are a dozen different ways to cook an egg, but in the end, it’s still an egg. Accounting and management experiences can be very different, but in the end, we are all trying to be the best we can be.”

Soon, the Circles will widen as the program expands to an online community accessible via the Society’s website. The community will allow Circle members to stay connected between meetings and to make inter-Circle collaboration easier. An added benefit is that women who are waiting to be assigned to a Circle can start connecting with other members right away, regardless of where they live or work.

“I’ve loved my experience with my mentoring circle. My greatest takeaway is meeting, getting to know, and being comfortable with the Circle members,” Ragan says. “I’m grateful that I’ve been able to support the women in my Circle. It may have been with an accounting problem, a resume or job referral, or simply to take a brief break from an over-piled desk. I’ve found the members are a wonderful support group to each other, both in a professional and personal sense.”

“Over the past few years, the Society has focused on reinvigorating the relationship between the Mentoring Circle participants, their volunteer coordinators, and Society staff with the goal of making the Circles an invaluable resource for our members,” says Kristin McGill, MBA, CAE, the Society’s senior director of membership. “The Circles are open to all ICPAS female members from all stages in their careers. The goal is to provide an avenue for participants to gain from the mutual wisdom, learn from the various experiences, and gain unique perspectives from their peers. The Circles are convenient and accessible, meeting at least four times per year in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs.”
Mentoring Circles are open to women in all business disciplines and practice areas, including public accounting, corporate finance, tax, internal audit, law, education, not-for-profits, and government, just to name a few. Visit if you would like to join or for more information.

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