Women’s initiatives: How the pilot programs worked

By Cheryl Meyer

Three years ago, the AICPA Women's Initiatives Executive Committee (WIEC) launched a pilot program and chose three midsize public accounting firms to participate. The mission? To kick off a step-by-step plan to create internal women's programs from scratch or to rejuvenate such programs already in the works. These initiatives aim to not only improve the careers of women CPAs, but also in turn help firms retain female employees and recruit new ones.

"We had actually tried two separate times to start a program internally," stated Jonyce Bullock, CPA, CGMA, the CEO at Squire & Company in Orem, Utah. "The first time it completely failed, and the second time we were just getting going and were worried of it failing again. So, we jumped at the opportunity." Bullock, with the help of the AICPA, led her firm's pilot program.

Three years later, leading women CPAs from the three firms discussed their diversity and inclusion initiatives at the 2019 Women's Global Leadership Summit in San Diego. After the summit, Bullock, Allison Harrell, a shareholder at Thomas Howell Ferguson in Florida and Georgia, and Lisa Johnson, a principal at Gross, Mendelsohn & Associates in Maryland and Virginia, spoke in greater detail about their challenges, experiences, and successes.

All three firms began the pilot program with an AICPA-hosted boot camp. They were also given tools, such as the Enhancing CPA Firm Success Through Gender Diversity checklist. Initially, pilot program leaders and their teams focused on a "business case," outlining why their women's initiative matters to their firms. Steering committees drafted plans of action and successfully obtained management buy-in. From there, they got to work, each taking different paths in their attempts to create a winning women's program.

Gross Mendelsohn

This firm, with offices in Baltimore and Fairfax, Va., "had lost some key people, those being women, and wanted to diversify but was struggling with implementation of a women's initiative," Johnson said. Previously, women in the firm, along with the human resources department, promoted such initiatives, but male partners were not involved, she noted. They approached this program differently by trying to align the women's initiatives with the firm's overall strategic goals. This time, men and women were involved in various events. "If this is a women's initiative that is run by women only, you're not going to have the success," Johnson advised. "You need to engage the male leaders."

The steering committee spent time creating a "brand" for its women's initiative. Called RISE (resources that inspire success and empowerment), the program is featured prominently on the firm's website. "Creating awareness is key," she said.

During year one, the project team also conducted a baseline employee survey. "We found people didn't know how to advance in the firm, and when we discovered that, it was one of the reasons why we created a sponsorship program," Johnson said. The program matches sponsors (who are partners) with individuals who strive to be on the partner track. Throughout the year, sponsors help employees develop goals and action items needed to make partner, she noted.

In addition, the AICPA conducted "unconscious bias" training with Gross Mendelsohn staff. Initially, Johnson said, some employees were uncomfortable with this topic, but they quickly realized that "everybody has bias," she said.

The firm also hosts quarterly events, such as a "lunch and learn," evening affairs that are leadership-focused, and golf lessons.

The initiative, while ongoing, has been a success, Johnson said. Four women were recently promoted to principal, with more women in the pipeline for promotions.  

Squire & Company

Before Squire became involved with WIEC's pilot program, Bullock had helped start a women's group at her firm. That group transformed into a book-reading club, where attendees read business books and then later discussed them. After some time, the group "kind of fizzled away," she said.

When the pilot program started, she helped create the steering committee, made up of three men and five women, and they outlined a three-year plan. They created a communications group to keep the firm's leaders apprised of their actions and started a sponsorship program, which is still a work in progress, said Bullock, who became the firm's CEO in 2018 and blazed the trail for another woman to join the partnership group. The firm also underwent unconscious bias training, conducted by a local organization.

The women's initiatives team, which attended the Women's Global Leadership Summit to glean ideas and insights, also held monthly meetings focused on soft skills and leadership development, tackling topics such as business development confidence, executive presence, and emotional intelligence. Men in the firm were invited to attend some leadership-development sessions, and partners were invited to attend all meetings, she said. The group also hosts an annual networking event for women in the area. As part of the program, Squire offered golf lessons and now hosts an annual golf tournament for men and women in the firm.

During the three-year period, Squire also established a parental leave program, whereby it offers three weeks of paid leave for the primary care parent and one week of paid leave to the secondary care parent. "The initiative opened up opportunities for conversations we weren't having," Bullock said.

Thomas Howell Ferguson

THF's pilot program leaders, in an attempt to retain and recruit employees, implemented flexible start and end times to the firm's office hours. Previously, employees were required to be at work between 8:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., and with the initiative those times were modified. Today, employees can start their day between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. and end between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. This change initially met resistance from some employees, who were critical of peers for coming in late. But the top-down policy eventually was accepted and relished companywide, said Harrell, based in Tallahassee, Fla.

In addition, THF authorized a flexible workweek, allowing most staff to work Monday through Saturday, as long as they met their weekly hours quota. This has allowed many employees, especially women, to balance their work and family life and, as a result, feel less pressure to conform to certain hours or days.

The women's initiative also is responsible for "dress for the day," a policy that allows employees flexibility with their attire. For instance, workers can wear jeans if they don't have client meetings on a given day, but when they meet with a client who wears professional attire, they must match the client's dress code.

"Our flexible work policies and programs have helped with retention," Harrell said. "And having these flexible work programs is helping our recruiting efforts."

The firm also holds quarterly evening engagements for women in the firm and held an in-house unconscious bias training, which Harrell led.

Since starting the women's initiative, productivity has increased, and "the feedback has been great," Harrell said. "The firm knows that our workforce is ever-changing and is grateful that we're looking to implement new initiatives. And it's not just for women — it's for everyone, and how we can create a better culture."

The firms have made significant advancements to create or enhance their women's initiatives over the three years of the pilot program. While they have instituted new programs with women in mind (flexible work arrangement, sponsorship, unconscious bias, and diversity and inclusion training), they have found that most of the programs have benefited the entire firm.

Cheryl Meyer is a California-based freelance writer. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Sabine Vollmer, a JofA senior editor, at Sabine.Vollmer@aicpa-cima.com.

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