How firms can close the gender gap

Women face 6 major challenges to achieving upward mobility equal to that of their male counterparts. Fortunately, organizations can take steps to address each issue.
By Jennifer Wilson

As I've traveled the country this spring and summer, in every single facilitation I've conducted at firm retreats, strategic planning meetings, conference sessions, and association networking groups, the gender "issue" has come up.

It's everywhere I turn. Outside of the profession, it's appearing in the assertions of sexist Olympics news coverage. In President Barack Obama's recent essay in Glamour. In the brouhaha over the August 2016 Pew Research study in which 56% of men surveyed said they believe the obstacles of sexism are largely over.

While the demand to discuss the gender gap has been growing, I've been reluctant to take it on in this column, mostly because I'm afraid doing so is a losing proposition. Let's face it. This topic is touchy! Even though I'm a woman, the mother of three girls, and a female business owner in a mostly male consulting profession, by writing about this, I risk upsetting my female counterparts by not representing their experiences. I also worry about the effect on men, who represent the majority of leaders I've worked with to drive growth and change during my career. Bringing this issue to the forefront in their firms is likely to create discomfort for them, too.

But it's that's kind of thinking, that fear of the sensitivities, that enables inequities to persist, to lurk in the shadows. Because, mostly, we don't talk about them. And, if we do, our discussions aren't honest enough to truly get to the heart of the matter.

So let's start with a bit of truth: The gender gap is very real. The 2015 CPA Firm Gender Survey, conducted for the AICPA Women's Initiatives Executive Committee (WIEC), found that women held only 24% of the partnership positions in accounting firms even though they represented more than 50% of accounting graduates entering the profession in the past 20 years. The 24% was 5 percentage points higher than the 19% reported in the AICPA report 2013 Trends in the Supply of Accounting Graduates and the Demand for Public Accounting Recruits, but it's still clear that while we attract women into the profession, they do not rise to the leadership ranks at anywhere near the rate of their male counterparts.

So, why don't more women ascend to leadership roles? This article explores six working-woman challenges that I believe conspire to cause our profession's gender gap. I've listed them from the most conventional to most controversial. In addition, for each challenge I suggest one action you can take to begin closing the gender gap in your firm.

Challenge No. 1: Too much homework

Women have more at-home responsibility, and it inhibits their ability to win at work. This is changing for the better, especially with younger couples, but many women still outperform their significant other or spouse in terms of household duties, social calendar management, and—the big one—child rearing. It's likely that as women mature, they have more at-home and at-work responsibility and that the work compression common in our profession increasingly affects their ability to win at work and at home. If a woman cannot win at home and at work, she almost always will choose to win at home, especially if she has children. Don't make her choose!

Action: Develop and then continually enhance your firm's flexible work offerings, including Anytime, Anywhere Work programs. Offer one-size-fits-one work arrangements that provide flexibility in both the time the work is performed and the place from which it is performed. Make these programs available to both women and men in your firm. Allow work-from-home and part-time schedules, abolish mandatory hours, and more. Remove the stigma of using your flex programs.                                        

Challenge No. 2: Not enough role models

Women often don't have a variety of female role models to relate to. Our profession has some fantastic female role models who are making work and life blend successfully, but there aren't enough of them, and some firms don't have any.

Action: Highlight all sorts of "stories" or different pathways that women and men in the firm have taken to be successful. Make sure your nontraditional team members participate in your firm's recruiting, too, so that future team members can see the many options that exist. If you don't have examples of strong yet winning-at-home women in the firm, connect with others in the profession and bring their stories back to your firm's next all-staff meeting and discuss how your firm is open to pursuing these pathways if it means retaining and growing both female and male talent on the team.

Challenge No. 3: The glass ceiling

Promotion decisions—especially for partner—still revolve around chargeable hours/billings and new business development. Many women have evolved into more of a support role—managing another partner's large book of business, engaging in people development and mentoring initiatives, volunteering to run internal initiatives—all things that add value, but don't stand up next to charge hours and new business in the eyes of leadership.

Action: If charge hours and business development are the main criteria your firm will use for promotion, ensure that your female rising stars are as freed up to pursue both as their male counterparts. If your firm places high value on business development activities, recognize that those working "less time" schedules while raising children may not be able to invest the after-hours business development time your firm might demand. In that scenario, my best advice is to put your people to work at their highest and best use and place as much promotion-assessment value on achieving firm initiatives and people development as you do billings and personal marketing.

Challenge No. 4: Unconscious bias

Firms usually offer more experiential learning opportunities to men than women. Why? Perhaps because of unconscious bias—the unintentional or unwitting preference that each of us has for people who are more like us. For instance, as a runner, I probably relate to and like other runners better than nonrunners. This is an example of an unconscious bias known as affinity bias. In firms where the leaders and partners are predominantly male (and that's many of them), it's possible that affinity bias causes male leaders to take more up-and-coming males to lunch, on client visits, to prospect meetings, and more. And that's because they're more like their leaders or they remind their male leaders of themselves at that age, or because of other unconscious preferences. It could also be that more women are on nontraditional schedules, and it takes more planning and communication to include nontraditional workers in experiential learning opportunities than those who are on more traditional schedules.

Action: Learn more about and then regularly discuss unconscious bias. Invest in ongoing gender diversity learning programs. Understand your own biases. Encourage others to understand theirs. Seek ways to consciously act against bias in all forms. Keep track of and report on who is getting which types of opportunities, and be sure that your firm leaders are held accountable for including both men and women—and those on nontraditional and traditional schedules in mentoring meetings and experiential opportunities.

Challenge No. 5: Male/female stereotypes

Men and women must rise above traditional gender behavioral expectations. For many, we are still raising our children with stereotypical toys—dolls and dress-up for girls, and balls and bats for boys. When this gender conditioning shows up at work, it can create a bias in the way that we expect men and women to behave and communicate. If a woman is dominant or a man is more accommodating, one is seen as pushy and the other as weak. All too often, I hear women who raise issues, stand their ground, or talk straight described as "over the top," "overly aggressive," or even the "B" word, when the same behavior in a male counterpart might be lauded as assertive leadership.

Action: Communicate! While you're educating your people on unconscious bias, identify typical male/female stereotypes and help your team members to see the flaws in our societal conditioning. Identify examples of people of both sexes who have defied traditional expectations and been successful. As Obama wrote about feminism, "We need to keep changing the attitude that values being confident, competitive, and ambitious in the workplace—unless you're a woman. Then you're being too bossy, and suddenly the very qualities you thought were necessary for success end up holding you back."

Challenge No. 6: Sexual issues

You won't like this one, and I don't either, but a natural tension exists in the male/female relationship that can spill into the way people think and behave at work. Some male leaders have said that they do not feel comfortable taking a young female team member to lunch alone because they don't want to raise eyebrows about their motives. It is likely that they would not have this same concern taking a young man out alone. Women have shared that they aren't comfortable pursuing lunches or coffee with male referral sources they don't know well because they don't want to give them the "wrong idea." If men and women are worried about the impression that spending time together will give, and most firm leaders are male, then it is likely that females are getting less "face time" and fewer learning experiences than their male counterparts.

Action: Remove sexuality from the workplace. This is not suggesting that women lose their femininity or men their masculinity. It's just that, in my opinion, sex and professionalism don't mix. Both genders have to pay attention to their clothing and other appearance choices for work so as not to sexualize their image. If you're worried about an invitation leaving the wrong impression, consider communicating more clearly, such as, "I want to invite you to a business lunch to discuss ways that we can collaborate professionally." If you can't get past the fear that solo meetings will send unintended sexual signals, bring someone else along, but please don't let this creepy and outdated concern keep you from investing in your male and female talent alike. It's important to note that I'm not attempting to address sexual harassment here. Everyone should understand what sexual harassment in the workplace is and know how to recognize and formally address it. Instead, what I'm talking about is the need to stop women and men from losing opportunities because of a misconception that male-female interactions have a sexual undercurrent.

In closing

Firms that attract, develop, and promote women in ways equal to their male counterparts will have an extraordinary competitive advantage in an increasingly diverse and tight labor market. To help your firm close the gender gap, start by opening up tough, honest, and sometimes awkward communication—first with your firm's women leaders and rising stars to get their input and allow them to share their true thoughts and experiences. From there, educate your firm's partners and then invite input from your team members to raise awareness of the unconscious biases, societal conditioning, and unequal experiences that may be contributing to your firm's gender gap.

Jennifer Wilson is a partner and co-founder of ConvergenceCoaching LLC, a leadership and marketing consulting and coaching firm that helps leaders achieve success. Learn more about the company and its services at


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