insight magazine

Balancing the Bias

At a time when most organizations are lacking gender equality in their leadership ranks, it takes best-in-class empathy to make change. By Kristine Blenkhorn Rodriguez | Summer 2017


CPAs are sticklers for the numbers adding up, balancing out. In the public accounting profession, however, despite women accounting for roughly half of all accounting education program enrollments and employee counts, they hold fewer than 25 percent of firm partner roles, according to research by the AICPA’s Women’s Initiatives Executive Committee (WIEC). These numbers just don’t add up, no matter how you crunch them.

This isn’t “news.” Despite years of articles, surveys, and reports highlighting the issues and challenges women face in accounting and finance, and calls for dedicated efforts and initiatives to promote women’s advancement within firms, the numbers of women at leadership levels still come up short. Despite women holding commanding representation within the new professional and associate ranks, and even among senior managers and senior associates in many segments, their numbers decline rapidly at top leadership levels.

It’s a cold reminder of the “frozen middle” as Andrea March, CEO and cofounder of the Women’s Leadership Exchange, calls it—the point in a woman’s career where she has reached the ranks of middle management and then must seemingly leave a firm for outside opportunities or be content to progress no further.

It’s time for this to change.

Paving Their Way

Where do women go if they’re not advancing in public accounting firms? Career changes are an obvious choice, but they’re not the only one. The WIEC 2015 CPA Firm Gender Survey found that women make up 43 percent of partners at firms with two to 10 professionals, indicating that women stalled within larger firms may be deciding to take ownership into their own hands, in their own firms. This is a noble and commendable move—one that’s certainly a positive development for the profession as a whole. But we still should question why it has come to this.

Illinois CPA Society members Alyssia Benford, CPA and Kimi Ellen, CPA are prime examples of that 43 percent. Following decades of combined Big Four and corporate finance, advisory, and audit experience, the former college sorority sisters founded Benford Brown & Associates LLC in 1996 as a certified minority and woman-owned CPA firm.

“We had to create what worked for us because the firms we worked for didn’t,” says Benford. Referring to herself as a pragmatist, Benford readily admits that owning her own firm was her solution to advancement and work-life balance after being unable to find it at large accounting firms and corporations.

“I needed to be in a place where hours were not unreasonable, quotas were not the basis for partnership, and where being a woman—more significantly, a woman of color—was not hurting my career,” she explains. “It was about me taking the initiative rather than waiting for a firm to do it for me.”

Working With Women

Benford’s public accounting and corporate experience isn’t an anomaly or isolated case. In fact, McKinsey & Company released research earlier this year indicating that regardless of how compelling gender diversity and equality may be among organizations, progress towards gender parity remains slow across the business world.

Much like in public accounting, women are struggling to tip the scales in public and private companies and board rooms in the U.S. and abroad. In the U.S., only 17 percent of executive-committee members are women, and women comprise fewer than 19 percent of members of corporate boards, according to McKinsey & Company’s report, “Women Matter 2016: Reinventing the Workplace to Unlock the Potential of Gender Diversity.” Among companies listed in Western Europe’s major market indexes, the respective numbers are 17 percent among executive committees and 32 percent among boards.

Paula Loop, director of PwC’s Governance Insights Center, told Forbes last year: “Typically, boards look for a candidate that has been a CEO or held another executive role, as boards often want current or former CEOs as directors. But a mere four percent of S&P 500 CEOs are female and only 14 percent of the top five leadership positions at the companies in the S&P 500 are held by women. That doesn’t make for a big pool of potential candidates.”

We’ve seen millions of women marching in unity in Washington, D.C., and around the globe, to push for greater representation, a stronger voice, and equality in business and politics, among other things. With reinvigorated women’s movements garnering mainstream public attention, and board diversity becoming a visible and actionable shareholder concern, organizations must focus more on filling their pipelines with female talent sooner rather than later. But how?

What are the organizations succeeding at advancing and retaining women doing differently? McKinsey & Company’s report reveals three gamechangers among “best-in-class” organizations:

Persistence. Best-in-class companies initiated diversity programs earlier, indicating that it takes time to effect tangible, sustainable results.

CEO commitment, cascading down to all management levels. Companies that have built gender diversity successfully at the leadership level are twice as likely to place gender diversity among the top three priorities on their strategic agenda, to have strong support from the CEO/management, and to integrate gender diversity at all levels of the organization.

Comprehensive transformation programs. Best-in-class companies have initiated change programs that ingrain gender diversity in all aspects of the business. Specifically, those companies are more likely to have change agents and role models at all levels of the organization. They also have developed and communicated a compelling change story to support the programs, policies, and processes they have put in place.

At the ground level, two rather straightforward initiatives repeatedly come up among women in accounting leadership roles that encompass these game-changer ideas: sponsorship and flex-work programs.

Sponsoring Change

While mentoring programs have become fairly common at most large professional services firms, programs alone don’t create change. McKinsey & Company puts it clearly: “Although having a critical mass of measures is important, volume alone does not explain women’s representation in top management. Fifty-two percent of the companies in our sample implemented more than 50 percent of the gender equality measures, but only 24 percent of them reported having more than 20 percent of women in top management positions.”

What’s lacking for women, and what is a studied solution to the current bias towards men in leadership, March says, is actual sponsorship. “Companies can’t say they have mentorship programs for women and leave it at that anymore,” March says. “Women need sponsorship if we are to tip the scales anytime soon.”

“A mentor walks beside you. An executive sponsor walks ahead of you, and opens doors for you,” states the 2016 Accounting MOVE Project report, “Sponsorship: Stepping Up Success.” In other words, an executive sponsor puts his or her influence on the line for the benefit of another. A sponsor has the goal of helping a particular candidate gain a targeted position or assignment— it’s about providing opportunity, pure and simple.

“Sponsorship is one of the most powerful and overlooked dynamics for propelling women through the talent pipeline,” according to the Accounting MOVE Project.

Finding the Flex

An unfortunate blockage in the pipeline for many women is the notion of a “baby penalty.” “Women will not achieve equality in leadership ranks until the baby penalty is openly addressed by upper management,” March says. “We need to speak about it without dodging the issue.”

What she’s referring to is the need to overcome the stigma that a woman simply can’t grow both her family and her career at the same time—the idea that it must be one or the other.

“We generally tend to lose women at the manager level. And usually, it’s because they get married and want to have a family. Until we figure out how to exceed client expectations while also tending to a family, we’ll continue to have this dilemma,” explains Eileen Iles, CPA, CGMA, CIA, CFSA, CCSA, CRMA, chair of the ICPAS Women’s Executive Committee and a partner in Crowe Horwath’s Risk Management Financial Institution Group.

Jackie Rosenfeldt, CPA, is just one example of how that dilemma can be overcome. Rosenfeldt earned her place among Grant Thornton’s partner ranks while both working a reduced, flexible schedule—about 80 percent of a “typical” workload— and raising a young family. Her career has now surpassed 15 years with Grant Thornton, where she’s currently a partner and key leader in the firm’s Chicago audit services practice.

“As long as I kept working hard and focused, it all seemed to work out,” Rosenfeldt says. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint. You’ll still have some people who think you are not as motivated because you work flex time. Take the long view. Don’t take it personally. Just deliver the results you need to get to that next career goal in the way that works for you,” Rosenfeldt adds, encouraging women to be mindful not to stifle their opportunities and to make finding a sponsor a priority, particularly those on flexible schedules, because as she puts it, “men often progress faster because they build relationships faster. Women, instead, sit behind and finish the work up—many times so they can get home to their kids.”

That said, Iles says she sees “more men taking time off to participate at home after a baby is born. It’s a start—and the more firms that accept it as a matter of course, regardless of gender, the quicker we’ll get to a more equitable gender leadership picture.”

Valuing Gen Next

In fact, as generational changes are pushing organizations to rethink their corporate cultures and be more considerate of staff wants and needs in terms of work-life balance, there’s hope that more balance and opportunity will come to all, which will in turn open more equal opportunities for women’s advancement.

One move Crowe Horwath has made to benefit all of the firm’s employees is launching its “Measuring What Matters” program. In short, Iles explains that Crowe Horwath is aiming to increase flexibility when staff isn’t facing clients. “Work from home, Starbucks—wherever works for you. That’s the fundamental idea. We emphasize results over chargeable hours. How you get to the result is what works best for you.”

Crowe Horwath isn’t alone in this mentality; roughly 65 percent of the selected firms surveyed by the Accounting MOVE Project offer formal flex-work arrangements, and every generational change is expected to bring greater calls for flexibility and equality in the workforce.

“You have to think that children raised by a female breadwinner will have different expectations about capability and equality—at home and at work,” Benford says.

Today’s best-in-class firms and companies are realizing this and are making equal representation of women within their organizations a serious science. What remains to be seen, however, is whether the rest of the accounting profession, and the rest of the business world, will follow suit and put gender inequality in leadership to rest. If so, it may be the first time the gender equality books are balanced—ever.

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