4 ways to ‘break the bias’ and support women in your organization

By Hannah Pitstick

Women are steadily chipping away at the glass ceiling with a little help from male allies.

According to the AICPA 2021 Trends report, of the respondents who participated and shared their 2020 data, 39% of firm partners across the country are women. And as of 2021, women held nearly 25% of C-suite roles, an increase of five percentage points since 2016, according to business consulting firm McKinsey's joint report with LeanIn.org, a grassroots organization that brings together women from all walks of life.

For some women, including Tracey Walker, national leader of culture, diversity, and inclusion (CDI) for RSM US LLP, sponsors have played a key role in their career progression.

Her mentor, sponsor, and ally, Richard Caturano, CPA (retired), CGMA, former AICPA chairman and founder of RSM's CDI program, decided to actively pursue diversity and inclusion at RSM when he realized the problem of gender inequity wasn't going to solve itself.

"Many told Rich not to lean into a controversial topic like inclusion," Walker said. "And against their caution, he decided an inclusion focus was necessary for the accounting profession to be relevant and thrive into the future."

Several studies suggest that gender diversity at all levels of an organization is good for business.

"Studies from MIT, Harvard, and Catalyst all say that including more women expands perspective and improves performance overall, which increases revenue and the ability to be innovative and creative in problem-solving and client service," Walker said. "This is essential to attract, retain, and advance women within a profession that is compelling and relevant into the future."

4 ways to boost gender equality

Walker will be speaking about her experiences during the Break the Bias Panel at this year's AICPA & CIMA Women's Global Leadership Summit, but here are just a few of her top tips on how sponsors and allies can support women within their organizations.

Become conscious of bias. The term "unconscious bias" implies that people aren't even aware of their prejudice.

"The reason it's called unconscious bias is because it's unintentional," Walker said. "People might be making choices based on preference — what makes them feel more comfortable or safe, so yes, I think bias is still present until someone challenges norms and asks what they are missing when omitting a woman's perspective."

Walker believes the first step in combating unconscious bias is to bring it into the conscious by asking questions. For example, if your leadership team is comprised of all white men of a similar age and background, you have to ask yourself why that is the case and challenge whether that homogeny is in the best interests of your clients and organization.

Or when you're filling leadership positions, start to question why you feel compelled to choose one person over another.

"I believe people understand gender equity intellectually, but when it comes to making the safe choice, they might start making assumptions versus just asking the women what they want to do," Walker said. "If some think about how a woman might not be suitable for a role because they have small children, the inclusive leader pauses to consider what if the opposite were true?"

Gain understanding and dare to be vulnerable. When Caturano founded RSM's CDI program in 2013, he started by leading a focus group to gain understanding about people's needs from a culture, diversity, and inclusion perspective.

"The first act of an inclusive leader is to seek perspective and gain understanding before taking action," Walker said.

She added that to truly understand another person's perspective, leaders have to be vulnerable and curious and ask "courageous questions."

For example, Caturano exhibited vulnerability by asking Walker questions like, "I may be clumsy in how I say this, but can I ask you a question about being a woman in our profession?"

"He went first and created a safe space for my authenticity and growth, and that's what true mentors do," Walker said. "By sharing their own stories, by sharing their successes and their failures, it lets you know that you can attempt something new, be bold, and even fail, but you'll live to serve another day and you'll learn from it."

Take micro actions that have major impact. There are many small, seemingly insignificant, things allies, mentors, and sponsors can do every day that have the potential to vastly improve the workplace for women.

For example, if you go into a meeting a woman is leading but everyone is greeting the man as if he is the authority, a mentor could say, "I am so excited to have her here with us. She is extraordinary, she's an expert with valuable experience, and she's got a great conversation planned for us today."

"We call them micro actions with macro impact that can change the experience for women and, moreover, model inclusive behavior that changes the mindsets and skillsets of others, including our clients and people who might judge the profession as an outdated relic in a world of innovation," Walker said.

Walker believes sponsors should consistently support and advocate for the women on their teams, including (and, perhaps, especially) when they're not in the room. That could mean speaking up when someone questions a colleague's abilities based on their gender or suggesting an experienced woman on your team for a stretch project or promotion.

Create initiatives and measure progress. Walker and Caturano have learned from experience that very little will get done without intentional interventions.

"If you say you're intellectually committed to the advancement of women in your firm, but you have no programs, mentoring, or anything to counter over 100 years of history, then you're not going to make progress," Walker said. "You need affinity efforts, measurable interventions, and you need a platform and safe space for the voices of women to be heard."

Walker recommends firms and organizations start by conducting an Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) assessment, if they haven't already, to understand their starting point.

They can then move to a programmatic construct that allows people to examine parity, reimagine talent experiences and be heard, perhaps by employing network groups that create safe spaces for women to design their own agenda, mentor themselves, and lead discussions to learn and train the next generation of women.

She added that women as leaders need to recognize their own power and embrace opportunities.

"That's why I love [the AICPA & CIMA Women's Global Leadership Summit], because it reminds us of the assets women are and the value we contribute," Walker said. "And to allies, what a tremendous opportunity found right there beside you on your team. We can't continue to debate. It's time to act to achieve stronger, more powerful gender outcomes."

This year's summit offers three days of sessions on leadership, diversity, and best practices to enhance the skills and potential of women leaders within the accounting and finance community. Lessons to be learned include recommendations and ideas of how to implement women's initiative programs to raise awareness within a firm, tips on how to recruit, retrain, and best reward professional women, and insights on how to best balance work and personal life.

Hannah Pitstick is a content writer for the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants. 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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