insight magazine

Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling

How women in accounting and finance can break barriers and become rising powers in the profession. By CAROLYN KMET | Spring 2020


In the 1950s, women accounted for less than a third of the American workforce. Today, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that figure is close to 50 percent. Thankfully, today’s workforce is much more diverse, but it was a long time coming—and there’s still a lot of ground to cover to move more women into the leadership ranks.

Within today’s financial services sector, women make up 61 percent of accountants and auditors, 53 percent of financial managers, and 37 percent of financial analysts. Unfortunately, that level of participation doesn’t extend further. According to a report issued in 2019 by Deloitte, the proportion of women in leadership roles within financial services firms is a mere 22 percent and is projected to reach just 31 percent by 2030. While those numbers arguably represent significant progress, it’s still a long shot from parity.

From a lack of role models, to the unconscious biases of business leaders, there are a variety of reasons why women have struggled to climb the corporate ladder. It’s time for that to change. For any woman who hopes to one day sit in the C-suite, here are some of the challenges you will face and how you can build your executive presence despite them.

Yesterday’s Struggles

Illinois CPA Society member Julia Haried is a consultant with Deloitte Consulting LLP. She also happens to be a Forbes 30 Under 30 honoree thanks in part to her co-founding MakerGirl, an organization focused on encouraging young girls to pursue STEM fields. Her inspiration? Her mother.

“When my mother attended high school in suburban Chicago in the 1970s, she was the only female student in her General Woods, General Metals, and Architectural Drawing classes,” Haried recalls. “She had to have the desire and the will to ask to be included.”

Inclusion aside, once Haried’s mother successfully completed her courses, she had nowhere to apply her new skills. Architecture was not a welcoming profession for women at the time. In fact, many professions then were “off limits” to women.

“There was the stereotype that women weren’t interested in STEM or related fields. There was the notion that women weren’t good at math,” says Dorri McWhorter, CPA, MBA, CEO of YWCA Metropolitan Chicago and chairperson of the Illinois CPA Society Board of Directors. “Those types of stereotypes, unfortunately, influenced the professions that women went into.”

Today’s Challenges

While the number of women in the financial services sector has steadily grown, there’s still a bias, unconscious or not, making it difficult for women to reach leadership positions. “The field of public accounting, for example, has typically had challenges retaining women. We see fewer women get to the highest levels of leadership—or at least not in the same numbers as we see our male colleagues ascend,” says Dara F. Castle, CPA, managing partner of RSM US LLP and the firm’s Washington Metro market leader and government contracting national industry practice leader.

This hurts not just women but the organizations that employ them. Castle, who also leads RSM’s women’s initiative, which is part of the firm’s culture, diversity, and inclusion program, believes the lack of diversity is a business risk. “There is a tremendous amount of research that proves pretty unequivocally that the more diversity of perspective gained by having more women in leadership, as well as by having a more diverse population in leadership, the better your organization will be, the more profitable you’ll be, and the more innovative you’ll be,” Castle stresses.

Additionally, the lack of women in the C-suite tends to be a self-reinforcing cycle—when the only leaders employees see are men, they’re likely to subconsciously associate leadership with men. “In STEM fields, like many other male-dominated fields, you see fewer women in leadership due to unconscious bias and systematic barriers,” says Sheila Murphy, president and CEO of Focus Forward Consulting.

Consider the concept of sponsorship, a relationship where someone, typically in a senior position, actively champions an individual’s capabilities and skill sets, and promotes them for opportunities. “Most people tend to sponsor people who look like themselves,” Murphy says. Fewer women in leadership roles translates to less mentoring, less diversity, and therefore fewer sponsorship opportunities for other women.

Worse even: There are still negative assumptions that shade the rise of women into leadership roles.

“Many women who have been wildly successful are also the ones who might be labeled as cold or cutthroat at first glance,” says Cathy Miron, president and CEO of eSilo. “The reality is that no matter your gender, success requires a certain amount of grit and fortitude to survive the climb to the very top of your field, but I feel women are more harshly judged than men.”

Denise Broady is COO at WorkForce Software and a former COO at SAP, a Fortune 500 company. Even at this level, she experiences gender stereotyping. “Unconscious bias happens more often than people can imagine in the business world. During one of my international trips, I was eating dinner with a group of male colleagues, and one of the top executives asked me what I did with my children when I traveled,” Broady recounts. “Instead of giving into the stereotype, I responded with, ‘What do you do with your kids?’”

As uncomfortable as it may be, it’s critical to acknowledge and address these situations head-on and to continue advocating for equity in the workforce.

“We need to train people on how unconscious bias impacts assignments, feedback, performance reviews, and mentoring,” Murphy says. But there is hope for change. More women in the workforce are speaking up, and many companies are actively working to ensure organizational diversity. Additionally, a shift in the corporate culture, away from the work-is-life mentality, is helping to tip the scale.

“Historically, the financial services profession demanded time commitments. Moving up the corporate ladder meant working long hours, period,” Castle recollects. “As our profession moves toward a more flexible work environment, women are better able to achieve a worklife integration where they can have a fulfilling personal life while pursuing their professional goals and passions.”

Tomorrow’s Promise

As corporate culture changes and more women find powerful voices and advocate for themselves, a larger systemic shift follows. Many organizations and schools are now actively targeting girls at a young age to introduce them to STEM programming and other maledominated career paths.

“There is a concerted push by technology companies, industry groups, and educators to encourage women to pursue technology careers and to rise into the leadership ranks,” says Dorota Shortell, CEO of Simplexity, a product development engineering firm. “My daughter has had the opportunity to learn about coding and engineering as early as grade school, whereas I didn’t do that until I was in college.”

At the YWCA, McWhorter re-launched TechGYRLS, a youth empowerment program designed to raise girls’ interest and confidence in the critical areas of science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics. “The focus is on eight-year-olds because, statistically, that’s when girls lose interest in mathematics,” McWhorter explains. “By exposing them earlier to these fields, they understand that they don’t have to feel excluded from these areas and professions.”

Across all generations, McWhorter says it’s important for women to stand for what is important. “We have to unabashedly talk about what we stand for, what we believe in. Women can be accountants. Women can be innovators,” McWhorter emphasizes. “I want young women to know that who they are matters, and that their experience and perspectives are just as valid and important as anyone else’s.”

The Climb Ahead

Though there’s growing societal awareness of the barriers women face in the workplace, earning a seat at the table is still an enormous challenge. Shortell says young women who want to gain executive presence should actively engage coworkers, build valuable connections, and be willing to speak up about leadership goals. “Look for opportunities to demonstrate and practice your leadership skills, whether that’s through outside professional organizations or serving on committees inside your company,” Shortell recommends.

She adds that emotional intelligence is one of the main factors in distinguishing good and bad leaders, so she encourages young women to improve their people skills, learn from mentors, and to pursue professional development throughout their careers.

From personal experience, Broady recommends taking risks at the start of your career to build your skill set early on. After all, the worst that can happen is a minor setback, she reasons. “Take the risks and have an open mind to learn as much as possible early in your career so that you can step into more impactful roles later in your career,” she says. “At the start of my career, I always thought that promotions and titles were an indication of career progress, but there were a few lateral moves, even in my 30s, that really paid off. I had a solid background in consulting, business development, and marketing, but adding a couple of years in a lateral move to run operations enabled me to step smoothly into COO roles in my 40s.”

Castle adds that young women who know who they are—who have defined goals, values, and experiences—are destined to advance the most. “When you know who you are, when you know what you stand for, when you know what your purpose is, when you are committed to your core values, you exude confidence that is perceived as executive presence,” Castle says.

Expanding on that thought, Miron stresses that it’s important for women to cultivate a personal and professional brand that displays confidence and competence, while also showing that they’re approachable, nurturing, and friendly. “Don’t be intimidated if you are the only woman in the room—be proud. Be someone who thrives on the challenge of proving you can do something that others think you can’t,” Miron encourages.

To accomplish this, Miron advises pulling together a support network of women mentors at work, in your family, and among your friends. “The journey to the top can feel lonely at times, but having a personal board of advisors and a network of women who have faced the same struggles will help you rise and overcome whatever challenges you face,” Miron says.

Despite the barriers to climbing the corporate ladder, Broady reminds aspiring women leaders not to get so focused on reaching the next rung that they don’t enjoy the journey: “Meet new people, create great friendships, inspire youth, learn from your colleagues, and make a positive impact.”

That is how change happens. That is how barriers are broken. That is how you unleash the power of you.

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