CPA INSIDER

Flexibility can cushion pandemic’s threat to women’s careers

Firms should be mindful of caregivers’ need for balance.
By Sophie Hares

As the pandemic rumbles into its second year, causing widespread upheaval and rattling the profession, many women in accounting are struggling to keep their careers on track as they grapple with the challenges of homeschooling and caregiving.

Firms should adopt a flexible, personalized approach to help guide women through the crisis to ensure it does not derail their careers and stop them reaching partner level, several women CPA firm managers said.

"Industrywide, there's a real danger of this setting people back," said Connie Hammell, CPA, CGMA, managing principal of KWC in New Alexandria, Va. "How firms go about handling this 'hiccup' is going to have a massive impact down the road."

In industries across the United States, the additional responsibilities around caring for children and supervising their schooling are taking their toll on women, putting them at increasing risk of burnout during the pandemic. Some are contending with caretaking responsibilities for elderly family members as well.

The Women in the Workplace 2020 report by McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.Org showed one in four women in corporate U.S. roles is considering cutting her hours, taking on a less demanding role, or leaving the workforce altogether. The report did not break down how women in accounting, specifically, are being affected by the pandemic.

Women outnumber men in accounting graduates and new hires at firms, but women make up just 23% of U.S. CPA firm partners, according to the AICPA's 2019 CPA Firm Gender Survey. Firms continue to face challenges in retaining women accountants and ensuring they get a fair opportunity to reach partner positions.

While women in the accounting profession have long faced challenges in reaching the highest rungs of the career ladder, progress has been steady in recent years as firms have deployed effective mentoring programs, pay gap policies, and flexibility in working conditions. Here are some more tips that can help the profession keep making progress.

Finding flexibility

Instead of implementing fixed strategies to help staff get through the work/life challenges presented by the pandemic, many accounting firms are relying on informal, "humanitarian" approaches centered on flexible schedules.

Hammell's firm has 10 women partners out of a total of 18, and has worked to make sure the unanticipated challenges caused by the pandemic don't disrupt women's career progress.

Hammell herself has had to make changes to her work schedule to accommodate the needs of her first- and second-graders. Although not ideal, she now starts her working day at 4 a.m., while her husband finishes his at midnight, so they can take turns helping to steer their children through online school. This schedule is unsustainable in the long term and shows the extreme adjustments many with children have had to make during the pandemic.

Some firms are offering staff the chance to reduce the hours and days they work if needed, taking care to ensure the changes don't affect career tracks. In states where offices have reopened, some firms are giving staff the choice to continue working from home.

At ATKG, in San Antonio, where around 70% of its staff and five of its eight partners are women, partners or coaches check in with staff each week to see how they are managing and ask colleagues to help share workloads where necessary.

"It's an all-hands-on-deck time right now," said Melanie Kirk, CPA, managing partner at ATKG.

"We really do feel that this is not going to be a long-lasting thing, so we don't want to lose any team members over a few extra hours work if they can't do that," said Kirk.

Communicate regularly

Open communication is essential both to helping people shuffle their workloads around child care and family responsibilities and to ensuring other staff are not overburdened with the extra work, said Lori Lato Morales, CPA, tax partner at Calvetti Ferguson in Houston.

"We were very intentional about being very informal. We understood from the very beginning that this is not a one-size-fits-all situation," said Lato Morales, a member of the AICPA's Women's Initiatives Executive Committee.

That means that instead of issuing a blanket policy, managers spoke to each staff member to find out what their personal situation looked like and then tried to figure out how best to accommodate them. For example, if an employee could only work certain hours to fit in around child care, the company tried to organize the workflow accordingly.

In times like these, women need to be brave and ask for help when they need it. Firm leaders need to remove the sigma around help being a sign of weakness and, instead, normalize voicing what specific support is needed to get through the moments of crisis like the pandemic, said Shelly Frazier, CPA, AICPA's senior manager for diversity and inclusion who focuses on women's initiatives.

"We can't assume that leaders and other partners in our firm know that we need help if we don't speak up and ask for it," said Frazier.

That also means that firm leaders should strive to create work environments in which women employees feel safe, respected, not penalized or judged, for speaking up, as well as empowered to say no if they do not have the bandwith.

Work to be done

It is still too early to see the impact the pandemic could have longer term on the progress women have made, including advancement in the profession, according to the interviewed CPAs.  

But the longer it drags on, the more likely it is that women with little flexibility will feel as though they have to choose between work and family and ultimately walk away from their jobs to focus on family priorities.

"As we continue to monitor what the impact of the pandemic is on our organization, on our people, on our women's career advancement, we're implementing supportive ways to help," said Stacie Kwaiser, CPA, chief operating officer at Rehmann in Troy, Mich.

Rehmann, which has 46 women principals out of 150, has offered flexible scheduling and created a website to provide staff with helpful resources for their families and time-saving services to help create a better work/life balance. Ongoing mental health awareness sessions are being provided to help tackle issues such as setting boundaries while working at home, said Kwaiser.

Until clouds cast by COVID start to clear, short-term, flexible thinking is likely to be the best way to support women in the profession and keep more women on track to the top.

"The hardest part is that nobody knows how long it's going to last and what's going to happen next," said KWC's Hammell. "The rule of the day has to be flexibility, empathy, and understanding with your employees."

Sophie Hares is a freelance writer based in Spain. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.

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