CPA INSIDER

Why women leave firms — and what we can do about it

The accounting profession still has far to go to advance women.
By Joey Havens

Have you ever taken a punch to the gut? The kind that literally takes your breath and leaves you gasping for air? I had such an experience recently, and I found myself stunned at how far we have to go as a profession when it comes to retention and promotion of female talent.

I'm writing this practically in the moment, reflecting on what I'm hearing in personal conversations with young female CPA stars at the 2019 AICPA Women's Global Leadership Summit. Two stories are sticking out to me, and I'm feeling devastated at the eerily similar personal experiences these two women have endured. These conversations, while uncomfortable, tell me so much about where we are and where we have to go. Let me do my best to relay them, and let's see if you feel the gut punch I felt as I listened to their stories.

The first story involves a woman who was recognized in her organization as a star performer and fast- tracker. Upon the arrival of her first child, she began a reduced work schedule and still continued to perform at a very high level. Her evaluation was outstanding. She was noted as delivering great client service, but the meeting concluded with her being told, "You will not be eligible for a bonus, promotion, or raise until you return to a normal work schedule." Wow! She quit the firm but not the profession and made the exciting choice to open her own firm with two other women partners.  

It was hard to hear that we let clichés like "normal work schedule" drive top talent out of our firms.

Here's another story of a woman who recently decided to quit a firm that did not appreciate her, her commitment, or her contributions:

She was a rising star who was on the partner track. While she was pregnant with her first child, the firm obtained the biggest engagement in its history. This time the woman was told, "This client is yours, and this engagement will help you make partner." I want to express that this is a firm that she loved, had grown up in, and had given back to — including demonstrating the ability to grow the business. The firm had even provided lots of flexibility in her schedule up until that point. But she was given only four weeks of paid maternity leave, requiring her to take an additional two weeks of paid time off so she would have at least six weeks with her new baby daughter. It was made clear to her that she needed to return to work as soon as possible to manage this new client. 

The client demanded as part of the engagement that the woman work on-site every day, even though their office was two hours from her home, meaning a four-hour commute each day. She tried the arrangement for three months, but became sleep-deprived and even had an automobile accident as a result of falling asleep on the way to work. So she went to her managing partner to explain that the situation was unsustainable and that she could not continue to meet the demands of the client to work on-site every day.

Get ready, here comes the punch: She was told, "You can leave work when you need to." As she sought clarity on this response, her partner made it clear, if she could not do the job that was required, she could quit.

That was the response to someone who had worked diligently for this firm and was recognized in the firm as the next partner. As a result, she quit, and although she has not made up her mind, I remain hopeful she will remain in the profession. I am already recruiting her for our firm.

What's more, news of the way the firm handled this rising star affected other employees, resulting in at least one female co-worker resigning.

The ripples of incidents like this form big waves as they come ashore. They continue to add to the perception that women, especially women with children, don't have a future in our profession. Stories like these cause young professionals to choose other opportunities.

I think we need to be aware that incidents like these are still happening to make us more determined to pursue a better course. And while I know many firms would never treat their employees so poorly, I also know that experiences similar to these two women's are happening far too frequently.

Many of us in this profession are clinging so tightly to working the way we always have. We are attempting incremental change in flexibility, yet empowered flexibility is the only way we can have the talent, of both men and women, to be relevant in the future.

I'm making the decision to get up from this gut punch and work even harder to make sure we shine the light on a better path forward. I commit to help elevate our profession until we are known as a place where every individual has an equitable playing field and opportunities to pursue their full potential and dreams.

What are some steps firms can take to change? They might include:

  • Taking an annual personal experience survey, which can provide insights into the experiences team members are really having rather than our assumptions about how they're doing.
  • Benchmarking your firm's benefits for parental leave and flexibility against those offered by firms and companies both within and outside of our profession. 
  • Ensuring those in top management make equity and flexibility a focus and are willing to have conversations within the firm to find better ways of doing things. 
  • Sharing and celebrating success stories so that your culture gets stronger by reinforcing the right behaviors.
  • Creating a special sponsorship for first-time parents or a toolkit to educate employees and help them manage these defining moments in their lives.

What is not acceptable is watching talent walk out the door. We have a bright future if we can face reality and begin to work together towards a future view that provides equitable opportunities and leadership for everyone.

Visit the AICPA's Women in the Profession page for more ideas and resources, including information on how to start a women's initiative or a mentoring program at your firm and a guide to retaining women leaders. PCPS Section members can access a guide to flexible work arrangements. The AICPA Online Mentoring Program is also available to all AICPA members.

— Joey Havens, CPA, CGMA, is the executive partner at HORNE LLP, where he leads the 600-employee firm's strategic visioning for culture, growth, and client experience. Learn more at hornellp.com. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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