What women need to rise in the accounting profession

By Dawn Wotapka

Women are underrepresented as partners and top executives in the accounting profession. Changing that requires pulling three levers: talent acquisition, retention, and promotion. Each lever has to be operating, and none can be missing to help women — particularly women of color — advance in the field, speakers at an ENGAGE 2020 panel advised on Tuesday.

The session, sponsored by the AICPA Women’s Initiatives Executive Committee (WIEC) and the National Commission on Diversity and Inclusion, started with statistics that illustrate the challenge: Roughly 23% of CPA firm partners were women in 2019, up slightly from 22% two years earlier, according to the 2019 CPA Firm Gender Survey. Very few of those partners are minorities. “Our profession is still overwhelmingly led by male leaders,” said panel moderator Rosie Brammer, CPA, who works at Beemer, Smith & Munro LLP.

As a result, “we are leaving a big chunk of our talent pool on the table and not bringing them into the leadership level,” said Jacquelyn H. Tracy, CPA, CGMA, a partner with Mandel & Tracy LLC and chair of the WIEC.

Here are questions leaders can ask themselves to help women advance in their organizations:

Do women see future opportunities at the organization? Organizations need to identify high-performing or high-potential individuals, said Latoria J. “Tori” Farmer, executive director of inclusion and diversity at KPMG LLP. “[E]very organization should assess their talent pipeline and the career life cycle to identify the peaks or trends for where they are losing women and if they are experiencing career stagnation,” she said.

Are women provided with the right and adequate career support? The rise to leadership often requires a sponsor, who plays a different role in a person’s career than a mentor does. Mentors provide information and guidance, offering advice on career path and what skills to build, while sponsorship involves someone putting his or her professional reputation and political advantages on the line to advocate for someone else, panelists said.

“The lack of someone willing to leverage their social capital to bridge any real or perceived opportunity gaps could be a hurdle” for women, Farmer said. “Sponsorship becomes really critical, particularly at a certain career stage.”

Do women feel comfortable in the environment? Women are constantly scanning for role models whose life situations are similar to their own and who have successfully navigated the workplace, Farmer said. For instance, they may look to see whether new mothers, working moms, partners of working professionals, and/or people with elder care responsibilities can succeed at their organization, she said. “Women desire the ability to connect with role models at those similar life stages. When they find that network, that becomes a reason for them to stay,” she said.

Are women held to higher standards for promotions? Organizations must demonstrate intentionality in performance-management systems, Farmer said.

Are women receiving the critical training they need? Women need access to on-the-job experiences, executive education, and other leadership development opportunities that validate and showcase their potential. If companies aren’t addressing advancement, work/life integration, compensation, and other challenges, women might consider their other opportunities,” she said.

For women of color, these variables are amplified. “They don't see the representation at the top. They don’t see leaders of similar profiles and roles of influence and power,” Farmer said. “They’re navigating this intersectionality of race and gender.”

“Answering and addressing these questions may feel uncomfortable for everyone, but accepting this discomfort is necessary,” said Scharrell Jackson, the COO of BPM LLP and the founder and chief executive of Leadership in Heels, a women’s speaker series. “When we talk about women and are people of color, we oftentimes find ourselves uncomfortable, and part of creating diversity and belonging is that everyone needs to get comfortable being uncomfortable.”

Dawn Wotapka is an Atlanta-based freelance writer. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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