Women's initiatives: A strategic advantage

Accounting firms would be wise to make the most of all available talent.

The recent AICPA supply and demand survey found that women constituted 44% of accounting employees at CPA firms but only 19% of the partners. The partnership percentage was a step back for women in public accounting. The percentage of female leaders in firms had risen from 1% (partners and principals) in 1989 to 21% (partners only) in 2011. (For a complete review of the AICPA supply and demand survey, see “Supply and Demand for Accounting Talent at Record Levels.")

With staffing and succession planning at the top of firms’ minds (see “Tackling the Top Issues”), it would seem obvious that hiring talented women—and cultivating promising female leaders—would be one clear answer to accounting firm staffing concerns. But the dip in the partnership percentage in 2013 shows that the profession is far from achieving gender parity.

Some might ask if it is simply a matter of time before gender parity is achieved. But time alone will not solve this problem. Women have been entering the accounting profession in roughly equal numbers to men for 25 years. Consequently, women have been in the pipelines long enough and in sufficient numbers to reach gender parity. The fact that women hold fewer than one-fifth of partnership positions shows that the profession is faced not with an attraction issue, but with a retention and advancement issue when it comes to gender diversity.


Why should accounting firms consider initiating programs that encourage the advancement of women? The following reasons form a strong business case for pursuing such a strategy.

- A strong flow of talented women is needed to bolster the pipeline of potential replacements for the thousands of Baby Boomer partners who will be retiring over the next several years. A flourishing pool of women at, or ready to advance to, the partner level would provide additional options for retiring partners looking to sell their ownership stakes. As it is, not enough women are on the partnership track and in position to buy shares and become partners. The accounting profession cannot afford to lose talented CPAs due to a lack of advancement opportunities.

- Marketplace demographics are shifting, with increasing numbers of women business owners and decision-makers leading companies and other organizations seeking the services of an accounting firm. Those firms whose leadership includes women will have the advantage in competing for the business of women entrepreneurs and business leaders.

- The next generation of CPA firm leaders is demanding that firms create a family-friendly environment conducive to a healthy work/life balance (see “The Lowdown on High Potentials,” JofA, Dec. 2011, page 36). A reason often given for the low percentage of women in the partner ranks is that many women who start a family can’t put in the time necessary to advance to firm ownership. But men and women in the Millennial generation value flexibility over money and are not as interested in working the same hours as the Baby Boomers did. In addition, the increase in the number of single-parent families underscores the heightened need for flexible schedules and alternative work arrangements. Firms have to adapt to changing worker concerns and family structures.

Diversity-related initiatives are not about dividing women and men into separate groups. They are about leveling the playing field to ensure everyone has access to the same opportunities and preparation for those opportunities. The goal is to create an inclusive environment for men and women to lead the profession together for the best possible outcomes.

What does it take to enhance an organization’s ability to retain talented women? Successful initiatives require leadership buy-in, a strong communication plan, and a welcoming culture (see “Case Study: Eide Bailey LLP,” below). But making a robust business case is a critical first step because it provides the motivation that will drive other efforts and encourage management commitment.


The AICPA Women’s Initiatives Executive Committee (WIEC) has identified three main obstacles to female career advancement: career/life integration; in-career advocacy and navigation; and access to female role models. Employers can take the following steps to overcome these obstacles:

Don’t limit women’s initiatives to flexible-work and part-time arrangements. These are great tools to retain women, but they can easily derail women from the leadership track. One answer is to ensure that those working on a flex-time or part-time schedule are eligible for leadership positions. Career/life integration where men and women can successfully integrate their personal and professional lives is critical in the face of growing demands of an evolving profession and raising a family. But, as the next three steps show, other measures are needed to ensure greater effectiveness.

Provide advocates and make navigation more transparent. The scarcity of female leadership puts women at a disadvantage when it comes to networking and building strong relationships with firm leaders. People tend to gravitate toward individuals with whom they can identify or have common interests. Advocates can offer promising women valuable insights and help them gain visibility and take on assignments that enhance their skills and experience. At the same time, whether or not there are female leaders in an organization, a firm competency model or career ladder that specifies the roles and expectations at each level—and clarifies what’s required for advancement—can offer a road map that allows all staff to understand how to advance within the firm and how their career path aligns with the organization’s goals.

Promote cultural awareness and demonstrate leadership buy-in. Unintended biases driven by societal and cultural norms can lead to unintended consequences. It is important to identify what these are within each organization and address them. For example, organizations should hold sponsored networking events during work hours to enable all working parents to attend and take advantage of such valuable opportunities. Ensuring that high-potential women or high-potential minorities have equal opportunities and equal access to leaders within the organization is an important step. However, it still does not suffice. Organizational changes will not happen without gaining leadership buy-in and demonstrating why the initiative is a business imperative with a direct bottom-line impact for the organization. This business imperative should be reflected within the organization’s strategic plan and goals, resulting in actionable items, measurement, and accountability.


Women themselves can be a powerful force in effecting changes in their organizations. The 2012 Women’s Global Leadership Summit attracted a dynamic group of individuals with a common cause from across North America to share their workplace stories, grow, and learn from each other. Here are some valuable pointers from that gathering:

- To succeed and reach their full potential, all professionals must challenge themselves, taking on new roles to create their own advancement. Assignments that stretch skills, speaking opportunities, and serving on boards of directors are all great ways to grow and gain visibility within the profession.

- Risks are worth taking only when they are carefully calculated or mitigated. The best way for a CPA to successfully challenge herself—and be in a position to take calculated risks—is to be the most prepared person in the room and know her business, industry, and subject matter like nobody else. There is no substitute for competence; she must have depth and breadth, bring new ideas to the table when possible, and think outside the box.

- It is important to seek out experiences that will expose her to leaders from many different organizations who can serve as resources when she has questions and issues. Mary Bennett,  founder of MLBennett Consulting and WIEC chair, calls this building your personal board of directors. The woman professional should be strategic about selecting the individuals in her network and how she spends time engaging in networking activities. She should select activities where she can make a contribution and learn something.

- It is never too early to start networking and building a future book of business. Chances are that people she meets today will be in similar positions of influence as she progresses within the profession.

- Women need to seek inspiration from various and visible role models. Role models are unique in that they each have their story of perseverance and success. Women need to pick and choose based on their aspirations and needs: breaking the glass ceiling, making partner while on a flex-time schedule, becoming a women business owner, etc. Networking inside and outside the organization is key to finding role models and cultivating these relationships.

- Her aspirations should be made clear. Olivia Kirtley, deputy president of the board of the International Federation of Accountants and the first woman to serve as chair of the AICPA board of directors, struck a chord when she noted at the 2012 Women’s Global Leadership Summit that it’s rare to hear a woman say, “My career aspiration is to be the CEO.” Women may not be as bold as men in stating their goals, and they may assume that advancement will come to them based on achievement. It may not happen as soon, if at all, unless she communicates her ambitions, demonstrates her value, and asks the influential people around her to become her supporters and advocates.


Organizations instituting women’s initiatives should remember that they carry an added advantage: They are not just about women. They build a stronger and more inclusive organization that can attract and retain emerging leaders from a diverse talent pool, people who speak the same language as a broader base of clients and members of the business community. Once the value of women’s initiatives is considered, the business case writes itself and clarifies how a stronger women’s initiatives program can give an organization a strategic advantage.

Case Study: Eide Bailly LLP

Background: Five years ago, leaders at Eide Bailly were concerned about the retention of women in the firm and with the promotion of women into partnership and leadership roles. After a year of research and preparation, the North Dakota-based regional accounting firm formed a committee made up of partners to determine strategy and structure for the First Focus initiative. One of the first significant activities was to create a series of meetings where women with about four to eight years at the firm could gather in groups of six to 10 and participate in facilitated conversations on the tools needed to successfully navigate roadblocks and other concerns that made it difficult for them to have a successful career in the firm. A significant outcome of these meetings was that the women who led these groups, all young managers, benefited in several ways that included becoming well-known for their leadership, using this facilitative skill set with clients/community/firm committees, and becoming role models/mentors to the meeting participants.

The firm also launched an awareness campaign designed to emphasize the importance of women promoting their achievements while also providing educational information such as how the differences between men and women play out in the workplace. Ongoing communications include articles and blurbs in the company newsletter on topics such as the difference in how men and women communicate and promote themselves. The initiatives are strongly supported by management, starting with the CEO.

About the First Focus initiative: Eide Bailly launched Focus Forums, which invite women senior associates and first-year managers to discuss various issues in a six-session sequence every six to eight weeks. Each forum is led by a facilitator. The firm selects female senior managers or managers with at least two years of experience at that level to serve as facilitators. Meeting attendance is strongly encouraged but not required. Facilitators ask open-ended questions on a designated topic designed to prompt the forum participants to process, think about, and provide solutions. The facilitators follow an outline prepared by the firm. The ground rules for the discussions emphasize that the sessions are “safe zones” in which participants can be open and honest. A broad summary of the outcomes and “ah ha” moments of each session is shared with the firm.

In addition to the Focus Forums, Eide Bailly this year created the role of office leader, who serves as the liaison between the First Focus Committee, which oversees the initiative, and each of the firm’s offices. Also, the firm held its first Women’s Leadership Boot Camp in July. A three-day program for women managers with at least two years of experience, the camp:

  • Increased the understanding of the business of public accounting through the discussion of topics including leveraging, business development and organizational awareness, developing business acumen, considering your brand, etc.
  • Provided a platform for participants to develop the skills needed to gain visibility and recognition in the firm.
  • Encouraged demonstration of leadership ability.
  • Provided access to top-level leadership.

Initiative results: The percentage of women among the firm’s 185 partners has grown from 19% in 2009 to 26% in 2013. The firm credits the increase to the First Focus initiative along with the education campaign and a firmwide awareness of the importance of promoting women. The firm also touts other results of the First Focus initiative. For example, women who participate in the Focus Forum meetings have become more outspoken about what they are looking for in their careers. In addition, more women are involved in firmwide committees, and the firm has gone beyond awareness as it continues to have conversations about topics that went without discussion before.


The percentage of women partners fell to 19%, according to the most recent AICPA supply and demand survey. This is down from 21% in 2011. Women represent 44% of all CPA firm employees.

The low representation of women in the partnership ranks indicates that public accounting faces a retention and advancement issue when it comes to gender diversity. Improvement will come as the result of action, not merely the passage of time.

Accounting firms should promote women’s initiatives for several reasons. The demographics of the profession and of the businesses CPA firms serve are demanding change.

Firms should address the three main obstacles to female career advancement: career/life integration; in-career advocacy and navigation; and access to female role models.

Women should challenge themselves by taking smart risks, seeking out different experiences, finding role models, networking extensively, and setting high career goals.

Yasmine El-Ramly ( yelramly@aicpa.org ) is a project manager with the AICPA Private Companies Practice Section in Durham, N.C.

To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Jeff Drew, senior editor, at jdrew@aicpa.org or 919-402-4056.


JofA articles


  • Employee Retention Guide, tinyurl.com/5rzfwug
  • Management of an Accounting Practice Handbook (#090407, loose-leaf; #MAP-XX, online subscription)
  • Share. Learn. Grow. Mentor., tinyurl.com/3uc3bh3


Women’s Global Leadership Summit, Oct. 24–25, Washington
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