insight magazine

Gender Parity: A Long Way to Go in Accounting and Finance

The accounting and finance profession has a long way to go to reach gender parity across its leadership ranks, but putting women’s advancement and personal development at the top of the to-do list could tip the scales toward empowerment and equality. By Clare Fitzgerald | Spring 2019

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Women today are on the move, shaking up old norms and solidifying a new sense of professional empowerment. As more women navigate the cultural challenges and strive to climb up corporate ladders and into C-suite roles, the accounting and finance and broader business worlds are bound to change. But that’s not to say there isn’t much more work to be done — the gender gap at the executive levels hasn’t vanished; rather, it persistently lingers to the disadvantage of many.

Women represent a mere 22 percent of partners in CPA firms, according to the AICPA Women’s Initiatives Executive Committee’s 2017 CPA Firm Gender Survey. Worse even, female representation on corporate boards is only sluggishly treading higher. A June 2018 Fortune magazine article citing data from ISS Analytics says women occupy just 18 percent of board seats among the 3,000 largest publicly traded companies across the United States.

According to many accounting and finance leaders, the path to developing female talent and eventually achieving gender parity at the top is simply a two-way street: women must want the positions of influence and be willing to work their way up, and organizations will then work harder to empower, support, and promote them along the way. With all due respect, a want for advancement and workplace equality has never been the issue.

Seemingly endless lists of work and family responsibilities often leave women’s time for the most important career development opportunities especially crunched or sidelined altogether. Too often, tasks and to-do lists take precedence. and in plenty of other cases, women seemingly get sidelined by their male counterparts in the competition for the top spots. While organizations have historically been fine with this being the norm, the seemingly simple act of helping women find ways to carve out time to focus on developing key business behaviors and traits could help more women earn the respect and recognition needed to advance and achieve greater gender equality across the business world. Can women — and their organizations — change?

BOOST CONFIDENCE, BUILD TRUST

In working with their women leaders, Ernst & young LLP (EY) recognized there are key differences in behaviors and ways of thinking between men and women — particularly in how they view themselves and exhibit confidence, according to Kim Simios, CPA, office managing partner in the firm’s Chicago office. Too often, women display doubt more than certainty or put too strong an emphasis on their missteps.

It’s a common scenario across the corporate landscape. In “The Confidence Code,” authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman note in study after study that men consistently overestimate their abilities and performance while women, well, they routinely underestimate both. To be blunt, women display a startling lack of belief in themselves — that needs to change.

EY has taken up the cause, crafting a development program for its people to generate discussions and raise awareness around gender biases and differences in the workplace. Equipping women with the tools needed to identify the behaviors that can diminish or build their power is the goal. Teaching women how to acknowledge their unique talents, embrace opportunities, and advocate for themselves is key to the program. Often that means helping them navigate the fine lines between confidence, arrogance, and humility.

“I always tell people that no one cares more about your career than you do,” Simios says. Her words should serve as an important reality check. “Women often assume others are looking out for them, but that’s not always the case. you can’t hesitate to ask for an opportunity or wait for one to come along.”

As the champion of Marcum LLP’s diversity and inclusion initiatives, Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Weiner stresses that “it’s important to honestly communicate to people who have influence what you want and ask what you have to do to get there — then make sure your actions back up what you’re asking for.”

Looking back on her career, Mary Fuller, CPA, managing partner at Shepard Schwartz & Harris LLP in Chicago, says acting on projects beyond her comfort zone was critical to her ascent in the CPA profession. “If someone has faith in you and is encouraging you to take on something new, it’s important to step up and stretch yourself,” she says encouragingly. “Don’t be too passive. Remember that you were invited to the table for a reason and voice your thoughts. People respect you for that. Bosses, clients, and other influencers will notice. And those experiences will help build your expertise and confidence.”

Simios emphasizes that good work alone won’t always get you noticed; putting in the effort to make meaningful relationships with mentors, sponsors, and influencers is just as important — and they should come in all shapes and forms. Formal sponsors can help make sure decision makers know the specifics of your experience and understand your talent proposition; informal mentors can be people you admire or who can teach you something new.

In fact, Weiner advises identifying possible mentors by simply seeking out and emulating people whose jobs you want. “Build relationships with these successful people and ask how them how they got where they are,” he suggests.

Simios notes that you’ll also want to seek out people who will watch your progress and provide honest feedback — but not just constructive criticism. “Because we often overthink the criticism, it’s important to find people who can help you understand what you’re doing really well. Getting affirmation about your strengths can really boost confidence,” she explains.

“Generally speaking, women tend to underestimate the power of relationships,” Simios continues, “but when the time comes for a promotion, it can often come down to who you know and with whom you have built trust. There could be a hundred qualified people for a job, but if the decision maker knows you, your name gets put into the hat.”

OWN YOUR CAREER, MAKE YOUR PATH

At one time or another, you’ve likely heard that you need to define your goals, be clear with yourself, and define success on your terms rather than on other people’s expectations. In fact, Simios thinks allocating time to reflect on personal values and being more intentional about developing leadership skills are necessary steps for climbing the corporate ladder.

“Women want to check items off lists. We spend so much more time doing that we don’t take enough time to pause and think about whether we’re tracking toward what we want. Then six months go by and we can be off course,” she explains.

Booking time with yourself to be nothing but reflective on your career helps ensure you’re making choices that are congruent with your passions and values. Women especially need to reflect on their personal definitions of success and how those definitions can change at different stages of their lives and careers. “It’s so important to be holistically happy. Family, friends, hobbies, and work are all pieces that impact the other areas of our lives. Knowing and staying true to your core values becomes a guidepost for day-to-day living and can help women maintain their personal well-being, energy, enthusiasm and long-term vitality,” Simios says.

Women also can benefit from being more intentional about building their personal brands and developing their leadership skills. Don’t try to fit the mold of what others define as a successful women leader, Simios notes. “Rather than attending a once-a-year conference, it’s helpful to be active and intentional about consuming small, regular doses of leadership training through books, seminars, podcasts, mentors, and other resources,” she says.

Fuller further suggests participating in industry groups and getting involved in an outside organization that encourages leadership and, perhaps, working with a leadership coach: “Working with someone independently can be a jump start to develop your leadership skills and learn about how to work with different people.”

DRIVE CHANGE, BUILD BUSINESS

As more women challenge the status quo and seek out leadership seats, savvy organizations are recognizing their value and working harder to keep them engaged. “Women have a lot of qualities that companies can leverage,” Fuller says. “They’re often more organized, they follow through on things, and clients like working with women.”

In fact, a 2014 study Walmart conducted found that 90 percent of female shoppers would go out of their way to buy a product marked as “women-owned.” Would there be a similar appetite for purchasing professional services from “women-led” organizations? Consider a 2017 Cone Communications survey of Americans found that 84 percent of consumers want companies to support women’s rights, and 87 percent would buy a product because a company stood up for an issue they cared about.

At Marcum, Weiner says that developing talent — particularly the firm’s women — has always been good for business. So much so that the firm has placed a great deal of importance on its flexibility and culture to keep women engaged. “We have every type of flexible work arrangement you can imagine,” he says, noting that technology and changing workplace expectations have made those arrangements not only possible but easy to manage. “Technology makes remote work seamless, and since clients no longer expect people to be sitting at their desks all day, we try to find ways to introduce flexibility for everyone in the firm.”

Weiner also stresses the importance of transparency in defining advancement opportunities. “If you want people to be able to climb your corporate ladder, you need to make that path clear; it shouldn’t be opaque. Marcum offers different paths to success, because things aren’t one-size-fits-all anymore,” he explains. “We work to create a safe and comfortable environment where people don’t have to feel inadequate if family responsibilities prevent them from working 80- hour weeks. There are other ways to be successful.”

Simios says she sees more organizations taking encouraging steps to offer more opportunities to women. “Overall, it’s a great time to be a professional woman. People are much more open to talking about the issues and barriers women still face,” she says.

More than anything though, she just wants women to have an equal shot and to stop falling victim to the “cycle of experience” issue: “If a board seat opens, a woman shouldn’t be automatically passed over for not having the right experience. She’s never going to get that experience if she isn’t given a shot. We need to help women build skills ahead of time and give them a chance when opportunities open. Women have so much to bring to the table.”