Having It All: How a Shift Toward Balance Affected CPAs and Firms

BY NANCY R. BALDIGA AND MARY S. DOUCET

SPECIAL REPORT

T en years ago, many CPAs would have considered any emphasis on issues such as work/life balance and women’s initiatives overly trendy. Today, these concerns are viewed as mission-critical by a profession that believes people are its primary competitive advantage. To meet the challenge of attracting and retaining enough qualified professionals to serve a growing array of client needs, CPA firms have focused on providing both opportunity and balance.

The AICPA work/life and women’s initiatives executive committee surveyed public accounting firms and professionals to gauge the progress being made on these issues in 1994, 1997 and 2000 (see “ Toward an Equal Future ,” JofA , June99, page 71, and “Facts and Myths about Women CPAs,” JofA , Oct.94, page 79). Responses to last year’s survey suggested three trends:

Women CPAs continue to advance at a slow rate within firms and are outnumbered by men in all areas of firm management.

Firms are offering more flexible work options to allow professional staff to balance their professional and personal lives.

Changes in the profession, including the expanding role of technology, have presented new challenges and opportunities for public accounting professionals.

Advancement/Upward Mobility

Women represented approximately 40% of the full-time professionals at firms responding to the 2000 survey. There were more women than in the past, at the partner, principal, director and staff levels and about the same number at the senior manager, manager and senior level. Despite gains, only 15% of female CPAs were partners, principals, directors or senior managers, compared with 41% of their male colleagues (see exhibit 1, below). Firms reported that females held 10% to 30% of all senior management positions—as regional partners, office managing partners or practice directors—up from 6% to 24% in 1997. The majority of women in senior management positions were at firms with less than 20 AICPA members.

Exhibit 1: Position in Firm: Men vs. Women
Men
Women

Despite improvement in the percentages of women in higher positions, most worked at the staff, senior/supervisor and manager levels (see exhibit 1). With women representing more than half of the graduating accounting students, entry-level staff positions showed gender balance. The survey revealed while a greater number of women were being promoted, most of those promoted at the senior level continued to be men.

In the 2000 survey, slightly fewer men and women (31%) were concerned about upward mobility at their firms than in the past (37% in 1997). Most accounting professionals in nonsenior positions wanted to advance to the senior manager or partner level, and about 75% believed they could, a figure consistent with prior years. At smaller firms, many respondents said firm size might limit their advancement opportunities while, at large firms, women suggested gender bias was the primary impediment.

Turnover and the Flexible Work Options

Despite a dynamic economy that put increased demands on CPAs and expanded their opportunities outside the profession, turnover rates held constant at most levels and still compared favorably to rates reported in 1994 (see exhibit 2, below).

Exhibit 2: Turnover Rates for all Professionals

Comments from professionals in public practice echoed the firm statistics on turnover. Approximately 67% of the professionals responding to the 2000 survey planned to stay in public accounting, 7% believed they would leave the profession and 26% were not sure. Men and women with children under age 20 were most certain about staying in the profession (73% of men and 71% of women)—perhaps as a result of expanded family-friendly policies at many firms.

A number of firms originally may have implemented such policies to retain young mothers following the birth of a child. Although the percentage of women returning to work had not changed from the 1994 survey (89%), more now returned part-time (39% compared to 27% in 1994).

As more men and women sought balance in their lives, firms began to offer an increased variety of flexible work arrangements, including flex-time, part-time hours and work-at-home options (see exhibit 3, below). The percentage of staff since 1997 using or planning to use flexible work arrangements increased to 47% from 39%.

Exhibit 3: Percentage of Firms Offering Flexible Work Options

Although CPAs in the 2000 survey said they had confidence in the effectiveness and availability of flexible work plans, 65% of them were still concerned about work/life balance, down from 75% in 1997. This concern increased with firm size: At firms with fewer than five members, 57% of professionals worried about the issue, but at national firms, the number was 71%. Respondents said client demands and tight deadlines hindered their efforts to achieve work/life balance. Many observed that a lack of adequate staffing combined with a robust economy made it necessary to work ever-increasing hours.

The Changing Workday and Technology

In its 2000 survey, the committee examined the degree to which professionals achieved flexibility through informal changes in behavior rather than formal policy. For example, professionals were asked how often they left the office to take care of personal business, making up the hours at another time. More than half said they did so occasionally, while a few reported leaving frequently or occasionally for family, extracurricular or school activities. On average, women left the office 2.4 times each month for nonbusiness activities and men left 2.6 times.

Technology changed the way people do their jobs. CPAs had an extremely favorable view of technology. Professionals overwhelmingly agreed that it improved client service (96%) and helped them to be more productive (96%). More than half of male and female respondents agreed that technology had improved the quality and quantity of their personal time. However, CPAs at larger firms were more likely than those in small firms to report feeling that technology interfered with the control they had over their personal time, and those at more senior levels reported working away from the office. Women said they worked from home at night and on weekends more frequently than their male colleagues.

Demands of the Profession

Despite the expansion and acceptance of flexible work options and improvements in technology, many professionals said there was always more work to be done, additional client deadlines to meet and never enough time for a personal life. Many worried that the unrelenting demands of a professional service firm might deter the best and brightest students from pursuing a career in public accounting. Their attitude provided a warning against complacency about the progress made over the last decade.

Although flexible work options are now more common, economic factors and improved technology created increased pressure on CPAs. Those who had achieved some measure of balance might have sacrificed their chances to advance at firms where the traditional business model rewards hours of client service.

The three surveys over the last decade showed some slow and steady progress had been made and that the future was likely to bring additional challenges. New technologies, changes in professional certifications and educational requirements, and increased client demands are just a few of the developments likely to make it more difficult to attract and retain talented professionals seeking both career and personal satisfaction. CPAs and their firms will have to work together to develop policies and incentives that offer opportunities for advancement and balance to professionals who still want to believe that it is possible to have it all.

NANCY R. BALDIGA, CPA, MST, is an associate professor of accounting at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, and a member of the AICPA work/life and women’s initiatives executive committee. MARY S. DOUCET, CPA, PhD, CIA, CISA is a professor of accounting at California State University, Bakersfield, and a former committee member.

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