How firms can advance women in the workplace

An AICPA survey finds which initiatives are most effective
By Anita Dennis

Firms are taking proactive steps to attract, retain, and advance women, according to the AICPA’s 2019 CPA Firm Gender Survey. And firms that use modified work arrangements (MWAs) and formal advancement programs to achieve those goals report that the benefits are clear.

Among other findings, the survey revealed that the vast majority of firms (94%) offered some form of MWA, such as flex time, reduced hours, or telecommuting, and that MWAs were considered effective attraction and retention tools. The survey also showed that half (50%) of firms had partners who used MWAs, and 62% of these partners had been on MWAs before becoming partner.

“We’re seeing MWAs become a viable option for people at all levels,” said Jacquelyn H. Tracy, CPA, CGMA, chair of the AICPA Women’s Initiatives Executive Committee, which conducted the survey, and a partner at Mandel & Tracy LLC in Providence, R.I. “It’s helping us keep great people in the profession. It’s a big bang for virtually no bucks.”

Tracy said her practice has two partners — herself and another woman — and they both use their own form of MWA. They work long hours during busy season, then each works three to four days a week the rest of the year.

Respondents also generally ranked formal advancement programs such as mentoring and sponsorship programs as very beneficial in terms of attraction, retention, and advancement, but the survey found that not all firms had embraced these initiatives yet. Tracy suggested that firm leaders with reservations about starting these programs focus on the benefits they offer. 

Firms that focus on gender diversity initiatives see tangible advantages, including enhanced attraction and retention of high-quality people, Tracy said. “Staff at entry and middle levels will see more people like them and realize they can aspire to leadership roles,” she said. These initiatives “also demonstrate how firms continue to prosper even as new faces move into leadership and as firms adopt policies to allow flexibility for all their people.”

In another finding, nearly 40% of firms are monitoring gender pay parity, according to the survey, and 85% of those firms report they are addressing any disparities they find. That’s important because “people want to be valued,” Tracy said. Furthermore, they’re more likely to get burned out or leave for a better offer if they are not paid fairly, she said.

“We’re moving in a positive direction,” Tracy said. She recommended that firms involve staff at all levels in any gender initiative to ensure engagement in and acceptance of the program and so that the initiative can benefit from a range of perspectives.

She also encouraged firms to match their people with assignments that can help them excel. “We tend to think that people come fully formed,” she said. “But we need to see their strengths and weaknesses and determine what they need in order to grow and advance.”

Anita Dennis is a New Jersey-based freelance writer. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Ken Tysiac, the JofA’s editorial director, at

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