How firms can promote more women to leadership roles

Take these steps to tackle the gender divide
By Sarah Ovaska-Few

ATKG, a San Antonio public accounting firm, didn't set out to become a destination workplace for talented female CPAs.

But over the years, the 50-person boutique firm has attracted top CPAs, many of whom are women. It currently has women in more than 80% of roles. Half of the six partners at ATKG are female, an anomaly in a profession that sees women in just 22% of partner slots, according to a 2017 AICPA report about gender dynamics.

Smaller firms are doing better when it comes to gender equality in the partner track. Forty-two percent of partnerships are held by women in firms with two to 10 CPAs, according to the AICPA report. In contrast, at the largest firms, those with 100 CPAs or more, only 21% of partners are women.

Teryn Grater, CPA, an ATKG partner who assists with the firm's human resources efforts, credits the firm's dedicated approach to staff development and needs as a reason why so many talented women have come to the firm and stayed. ATKG, she said, makes employee satisfaction a top goal and encourages professionals to manage their own schedules.

"We try to make our firm about people's lives" rather than focusing completely on billable hours, she said. "That's the secret to who we are."

For instance, ATKG has several leave programs that employees cherish, including a program that mandates people take two consecutive weeks of paid time off at their five-year service mark and a full month at a decade's service with the firm. The firm also has a bucket list program, where employees are encouraged to list things they aspire to do, from hiking the Grand Canyon to taking professional culinary classes. The firm chooses four to eight bucket list items to fund each year, Grater said.

It's not just vacations and leave policies that ATKG uses to help its employees, however. The firm also conducts frequent soft skills training, as well as an in-depth skill development program where the firm conducts a deep analysis of people's strengths, and then works to ensure people are building on those skills and growing as professionals, Grater said.  

And it's not just women, of course, who benefit from the firm's policies. Male CPAs are just as appreciative that they can have a challenging accounting career, Grater said, but also be present in their personal lives to make weekday family dinners, train for marathons, coach children's sports, or travel the world on vacations where they're not expected to be tethered to work email. The key to offering those work/life flexibilities is giving staff the responsibility to manage their own workloads, communicate clearly with their supervisors about the status of projects, and ensure that clients are receiving excellent service with all their needs met, Grater said.

At Moss Adams, the large Seattle-based public accounting firm with more than 3,200 personnel, the desire to create more female leadership drives the firm's Forum W effort, which aims to attract, retain, and advance women, said Jen Wyne, the firm's executive director of human resources.

The firm is constantly assessing why it, like many accounting firms, sees men and women joining the firm at equal numbers but fewer women climbing the ladder to senior manager or partner levels.

Grater, Wyne, and others shared their thoughts on how to assess whether your firm is doing enough to ensure women have access to opportunities.

Know the numbers. Ask yourself some key questions: Is your firm hiring equal numbers of men and women? If so, when are women beginning to drop out of the career ladder? Having a hold on those numbers can lead to discussion about why career progression isn't equal between the sexes, what barriers exist, and what firms can do to reverse that trend, said Jacquelyn Tracy, CPA, CGMA, co-owner of the Providence, R.I., firm Mandel & Tracy LLC.

Make the business case for gender equity. Firms need to know why it's important to make gender equity in leadership roles a priority before launching any formal efforts to increase it, said Tracy, who also chairs the AICPA's Women's Initiative Executive Committee. For example, you can make the case that gender balance in leadership is needed to retain a satisfied workforce and to attract clients who expect to see firms reflect society.

"We see that we're able to come up with new and different ways to serve our clients," Tracy said about her firm, where she and the other managing partner are female. Having leaders with varied life experiences has generated more creative thinking about approaches to client interactions and helps many clients, especially those at women-led companies, to feel at ease with their firm, she said.

"The bottom line is it helps us be more profitable," she said.  

Talk about succession planning. At Moss Adams, the firm's top leaders meet annually to go over its leadership pipelines. A big part of that conversation is looking at talent coming up, including gender diversity, Wyne said. Regularly discussing who your firm's future leaders are can help you make sure people are getting exposure to the experiences they need to continue climbing, she said.

ATKG has been approached by many other firms asking about mergers, Grater said, often because those firms' managing partners are ready to retire and suddenly realize there are no clear successors to take over. She suggests that firms start thinking now about their future leaders and making sure that talented women aren't being overlooked.

Think well beyond family-friendly policies. Many firms think that if they boost their family leave or work/life balance policies they've done enough to support women in the workplace, said Mary Bennett, a North Carolina-based consultant in this area who was formerly a partner at a top 10 firm. But women leaving a firm aren't necessarily exiting because of leave policy; it's more likely that they didn't see a path forward for themselves or varied examples of other women who have made it to the top, Bennett said, describing a pattern she's observed in her years of work working with individuals and firms. Pinning their exit on family needs, which Bennett calls an "easy culprit," saves them from having a tougher conversation about the barriers they faced to career progression.

Having strong sponsorship programs can help talented female CPAs learn the ways women and men effectively advance, as well as give them an advocate who can provide career navigation and teach them to boost their profile in the firm, Bennett said.

Consider whom you promote to partner and what message that sends. If the only men and women who become partners are those who have pushed aside other life pursuits and spent years working lots of overtime, then that's "terrible role modeling for everyone coming behind," Bennett said.

Don't leave it to women only to solve the problem. At many firms, women alone are asked to solve the problem of having an insufficient pipeline of female talent, Bennett said. She added that male and female leaders must work together to shift the culture of the firm and make real progress. Having any gender diversity or women's initiatives supported at the top will also go far in building up the pipeline of talented female leaders.

At Moss Adams, that's meant having firm leaders be vocal about why having female leadership, as well as other forms of diversity, is key to the firm's meeting client expectations and needs.

"We start with the recognition that diversity and inclusion throughout our organization and leadership is critical to our growth and success, which makes the business case easy to make," Wyne said.

Sarah Ovaska-Few is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at

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