One secret to female CPAs’ success: Frontline managers

Research shows that a champion in leadership can help women reach the top.
By Dawn Wotapka

When companies aim to boost the number of women in their upper ranks, they usually start with human resources, which implements everything from flexible work arrangements to gender-specific support groups.

But these methods don't appear to go far enough. While women make up the majority of college graduates, and 40% of the classes at top MBA programs, a report from Catalyst, an organization dedicated to workplace diversity, found they make up just 25.1% of executives at S&P 500 companies and a scant 4.2% of chief executives.

The problem is particularly acute in accounting: Working women often give birth to and raise young children during a career phase when CPAs typically work long hours to earn partnership, one reason why just 23% of accounting partners at U.S. firms are female, according to AICPA research. And whatever level they reach, chances are they are paid less. In 2016, women in the accounting and auditing field faced a 29.4% pay gap—a larger gap than the previous year—according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Bain & Co., a global management consulting firm, suggests getting someone besides HR involved in the gender-parity mission: the frontline manager. "There just aren't as many women in leadership roles," said Julie Coffman, a partner in Bain's Chicago office and the former chair of Bain's Global Women's Leadership Council. When it comes to fixing this, frontline managers, who see the employee the most, can often have the most impact, she said.

Earlier this year, Bain released Charting the Course: Getting Women to the Top, the result of a 2016 joint survey with LinkedIn that included more than 8,400 male and female LinkedIn members with at least a bachelor's degree and working for companies in the United States. The sample covered the full career spectrum, from entry-level employees to top leaders, and spanned all major industries.  

The research found that "to help women get to the summit, frontline managers need to focus not only on building skills, but also on bolstering aspiration and confidence," according to Bain, which grouped its advice into four tips:

  • Champion women: Bain suggested investing in day-to-day coaching, including specific and workable feedback. For example: "Here is what you are doing well, here is where you need to continue to invest, and here is how I will help you."
  • According to Bain, midcareer women in financial services are 75% more likely than their male peers to believe they do not have the same opportunities for advancement. These women are 17% more likely to believe that they do not have a senior co-worker advocating for them.

    Managers can also help women regain their footing after a stumble. It's natural to make mistakes, but women can be particularly hard on themselves. 

  • Show multiple routes to success: Frontline managers should identify and celebrate diverse leadership models and realize the manager's road isn't the only one an employee can take. Be careful of how those roads may look to a woman who can't identify with her male boss who puts in long hours. According to Bain, "many women cite the lack of role models at the top who are facing similar work and home dynamics." Women should not feel limited "by a stereotype of success that doesn't fit them."
  • Talk often: More companies are replacing formal reviews with a system of more frequent and real-time feedback. "Telling someone 'You are doing great' twice a year during a review is not enough," Bain said. It encourages consistently building aspiration and confidence in small doses.
  • Support the whole person: Women frequently face home dynamics that make it hard to juggle family lives and work. According to the Bain survey, midcareer women in financial services are nine times more likely to be a primary caregiver than their male peers and 80% more likely to believe the volume and pace of work expected to advance is not reasonable. "Women in general are taking on more complex sets of responsibilities," said Coffman, a mother who has been at Bain for 27 years.
  • Frontline managers can develop a plan for advancement that has room for women to meet both professional and personal goals, and ensure that the people who report to them are able to pursue career goals while living a life outside of the office.

By using these tips, frontline managers can make a big difference in helping women "emerge from a period of low aspiration and confidence and continue climbing," Bain wrote. Of course, added Coffman: "There's nothing about these four actions that wouldn't also be effective for the men working for you."

Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer based in Atlanta. To comment on this article, contact Chris Baysden, senior manager of newsletters at the AICPA.

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