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6 mistakes to avoid with women’s initiatives programs

These decisions can derail efforts to fully stock the talent train.
By Yasmine El-Ramly, CPA/CITP, CGMA

While many firms have invested time and money in women's initiatives programs, that hasn't translated into large numbers of women rising to the top levels in accounting firms. In fact, only 24% of firm partners nationwide are women, according to a report issued by the AICPA's Women's Initiatives Executive Committee.

Why don't women hold a higher percentage of partner positions? One of the reasons may be that firms are making some common mistakes in their thinking about the best ways to advance women into leadership positions. By avoiding a few errors, firms can hang on to talented professionals and reap the full benefits of their investment in women's initiatives.

Mistake No. 1: Waiting for change

The "pipeline myth" insists that women are moving their way up the ladder but that not enough of them have been in the profession long enough to have broken into the leadership ranks in great numbers. In reality, women have made up about 50% of new CPAs for roughly 25 years, sufficient time for more than one-fourth of them to rise to management levels. (See more information on women's initiatives in the AICPA Women's Initiatives Executive Committee's paper on "Organizational Strategies: The Advancement of Women.")

Women continue to enter the profession in high numbers, but they are simply not staying long enough to close the leadership gap, or they are being sidelined before reaching the top levels. As a result, firms must take a proactive approach if they want to retain professionals from the entire talent pool or develop partners who are ready to lead the organization when current management retires. Firms can begin by addressing some of the other mistakes discussed in this article.  

Mistake No. 2: Blaming the glass ceiling

We all know about the concept of a glass ceiling that prevents women from reaching the top levels, but it may be surprising to learn how early differences in men's and women's prospects and even compensation begin to appear. At the 2016 AICPA Women's Global Leadership Summit, Catalyst's Vandana Juneja reported on a study of business school graduates that found that in their first jobs, the salaries for women MBAs were an average of $4,600 less than those of their male counterparts who took the exact same positions. That is a significant gap for new professionals, and it can grow over time. (Catalyst is an international not-for-profit research organization.)

Although the glass ceiling is a concern, firms may be losing talented women much earlier in their careers because of disparities between male and female professionals at all levels. To determine if a problem exists, firm leaders can compare salaries for men and women in similar jobs, as well as other indicators, including length of time to promotion or to partnership. That's the best way to identify imbalances and barriers that could hinder retention of good professionals and make it difficult for them to grow in your organization long before they hit the glass ceiling at the leadership level. 

Mistake No. 3: Relying on mentoring alone

Many organizations have recognized the value of mentorship and set up programs that match seasoned professionals with newer CPAs. What women are lacking, however, are sponsors. While mentors offer advice that can help move a professional's career forward, sponsors actively advocate on his or her behalf, suggesting him or her for career-changing promotions or stretch assignments.

This type of sponsorship goes on informally every day in organizations. It often omits women, however, for a variety of reasons. For example:

  • Leaders who recognize a woman's expertise may still assume she wouldn't want to take on a more challenging job or project because of family commitments.
  • A professional may be overlooked for a star assignment simply because she has never received one before.

Organizations should undertake intentional sponsorship efforts to counteract these assumptions and ensure women enjoy the same kind of advocacy that men do. 

Mistake No. 4: Relying on flextime programs alone

Flextime and alternative work schedule programs are great for retention and recruitment. However, they aren't designed to groom future leaders or remove professional roadblocks to women's advancement. While enabling employees to balance their personal and professional lives is important, it is not a substitute for a leadership development effort.

Firms should see flexible programs as one facet of a larger retention program, but not the sum total of a women's initiative. Nurturing a new generation of women owners should include leadership development training, sponsorship, or other efforts aimed specifically at women's advancement.

Mistake No. 5: Leaving men out of the conversation

As Catalyst's Juneja noted in her Summit presentation, the active engagement of all members of any organization is critical for success. So, in talking about any initiative aimed at diversity and inclusion, it's a mistake to omit the experiences and insights of men. As Juneja pointed out, no one benefits when there's an assumption that men aren't interested in diversity and inclusion. Engaging men can reassure them that the program is not meant to implement reverse discrimination, and it can better inform them about the barriers women may face, as well as develop a better sense of belonging throughout the firm. The overall effort should be designed to encourage men and women to work together for the longevity and success of the organization. When men across the organization are involved in diversity and inclusion efforts, the entire firm will benefit from lower turnover.

Mistake No. 6: Neglecting the strategic value

This could be the most dangerous mistake that firms make with women's initiatives. It's never good firm policy to omit one-half of the talent pool from leadership levels, because firms will miss out on promising leaders and hinder their future prospects and viability. Add to that the fact that roughly 10,000 Baby Boomers can be expected to retire each day through 2029. Firms are already facing a significant succession challenge as they scramble to bring in new talent and replace thinning leadership ranks. No successful organization can afford to lose out on the potential of half of its people. With all of those business reasons for a women's' initiative, it becomes a strategic imperative. 

Accordingly, firms should recognize the importance of their women's initiatives by linking them to their strategic goals, including succession, new practice opportunities, and recruitment and retention. Once the business case for women's initiatives is clear, it will be easier to obtain critical management buy-in and engagement to ensure a program's acceptance and credibility. To do that, include representatives of top leadership in planning and implementing any women's initiatives.

The right start

What myths or misperceptions might be holding back your firm's women's initiative efforts? By asking that question, firm leaders can better ensure they get the best outcome from their programs. Using these examples as a starting point can help you pinpoint problems and identify the best solutions.

Yasmine El-Ramly, CPA/CITP, CGMA, is senior technical manager–Firm Services & Global Alliances for the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants in Durham, N.C.

RESOURCES

Websites

A wealth of resources for organizations and women can be found on the AICPA Women in the Profession site at aicpa.org/womenlead. The Starting a Women's Initiative Program page features a checklist, learning guides, tools, and templates to help organizations launch a women's initiative of their own.  

Conference

AICPA Women's Global Leadership Summit, Nov. 8–10, Chicago. Check out the registration page to see options for attending in person or online.

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