How to be a trailblazer for women in the profession

By Sarah Ovaska

Women are still far behind where they should be in terms of business and accounting leadership, sitting in less than a quarter of C-suite executive offices. Women of color are in only 4% of those positions.

Women and men enter the accounting profession in equal numbers, but only 39% of partners are women, according to the AICPA's 2021 Trends report. Anna Mok, CPA, partner at Deloitte LLP (Deloitte), is on a mission to change all this by working to diversify business leadership and boardrooms.

Businesses "need to set goals, and they need to hold people accountable, to develop women to be ready" for leadership positions, Mok said in a recent interview.

In addition, people will be well served by understanding what sets them apart in the workplace and emphasizing those skills.

"We each need to understand and really hone in on what our strengths are and not be afraid to amplify them," she said.

Mok will be speaking at this year's AICPA & CIMA ENGAGE conference, which will be held June 6–9 in Las Vegas and online. She will discuss how she has navigated a successful career as a diverse woman in a male-dominated profession on the panel session "AmplifiHER: Inspirational Women Breaking Ceilings and Stereotypes in the Profession."

Based in San Francisco, Mok has been with Deloitte for more than 25 years and is now a Global Lead Client Service Partner and a senior partner leading its Asia Pacific efforts in the Advisory Practice. She's heavily involved with efforts to increase opportunities for women in the accounting profession and is also president and chair of Ascend Leadership, a not-for-profit aimed at supporting and helping women and business professionals with Asian heritage move into leadership roles and to create greater societal and workplace impacts.

Mok, a first-generation college graduate, immigrated from Hong Kong to the United States with her family at a young age. At many points in her career, Mok's background set her apart, and she found she had to be the one to educate others about who she was. She now encourages other women to do the same.

"Even though it may feel tiresome at times, you do have to help people understand who you are," Mok said. Earlier in her career, she found that her experiences weren't reflected in those around her professionally, and false assumptions were made that she had similar experiences to others. She has found that as she became more comfortable discussing them, her identities as a woman, first-generation professional, Asian American, and immigrant were what set her apart and led to her high levels of success.

Mok shared some of the advice she'll be expounding upon at the ENGAGE conference.

Be ready to make the jump. At times, women may pull themselves back from career opportunities because they don't feel ready for the next level of responsibility, despite being qualified. This is a form of imposter syndrome that occurs and, as a result, some will overcompensate by working harder than necessary to prove their worth and belonging. It's something that Mok says she now regrets doing earlier in her career; she wishes she had had more confidence in her abilities and talents.

"I felt I needed to work harder than others," she said. "Whereas in hindsight, others were not spending a disproportionate amount of energy to prove their worth. They had the confidence to know."

Mok suggests being aware of these tendencies, if you have them, and making sure you take advantage of opportunities that come your way.

Ask for what you want. For women in accounting and business who are looking at their careers, Mok suggests being open about goals and professional desires even if they get turned down initially.

"Sometimes we are so afraid of the 'no,' or embarrassed of the 'no' that we don't ask," she said. "If there's something you really want, and you think it's important, it's important to start those conversations and let others know."

It's also important to listen to the feedback you get and be open to the possibility that a particular career move might not be a good fit, she said.

Broadcast your wins. People need to be able to identify their professional successes in today's business environment. That can be a challenge for women, especially for those that come from cultures that deemphasize behaviors that could be misconstrued as boasting, Mok said.

This was the case for her, given that the Asian culture in which she grew up has a strong emphasis on "we" over "I." While having a collaborative approach has served her well in her career, Mok has had to consciously think about ways to ensure her talents aren't being ignored.

She suggests being aware of ways you might be downplaying your experiences and contributions, and then strategizing ways to make sure your strengths are known. Mok recommends also asking others to be your ambassador and advocate.

To hear more from Anna Mok and the other women joining her on Wednesday, June 8, at 5 p.m. EDT at ENGAGE, register for the conference here.

Sarah Ovaska is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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