How to make sure your organization is empowering women

Hosted by Neil Amato

Tuesday, March 8, is International Women's Day. To celebrate the day, the guest on this podcast episode is Kimberly Ellison-Taylor, CPA, CGMA, the founder and CEO of KET Solutions and a former AICPA board chair. Ellison-Taylor has seen gains for women in public accounting partnerships, and in business and industry, but she stresses that more work must be done.

Ellison-Taylor also explains how women can be self-advocates, how organizations can provide opportunities for advancement, and why she disagrees with a colleague's notion that she is a "legend."

Also, get updates on recent Journal of Accountancy articles:

  • What National Taxpayer Advocate Erin Collins said about the role of CPAs in identifying IRS issues.
  • An education on fraud, and potential tax implications, before making a donation to Ukraine-related charities.

What you'll learn from this episode:

  • The gains Ellison-Taylor has seen regarding women and leadership roles.
  • Steps that organizations can take to make sure they are empowering women.
  • The reasons that Ellison-Taylor says she is "a work in progress."
  • Ellison-Taylor's reflections on role models and allies, and why the work of others "galvanizes" her.

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:

To comment on this episode or to suggest an idea for another episode, contact Neil Amato at


Neil Amato: Welcome back to the Journal of Accountancy podcast. This is the JofA's Neil Amato, and joining me for this segment to help celebrate International Women's Day is CPA Kimberly Ellison-Taylor. You will hear that interview right after this word from our sponsor.

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Amato: Kimberly Ellison-Taylor is the founder of KET Solutions, she's the former AICPA chair, she's the wearer of bright, memorable athletic footwear, and the person recently referred to as "a legend" on this podcast — more on that later. Hello, Kimberly.

Kimberly Ellison-Taylor: Hi, Neil, how are you?

Amato: Doing great. Thanks for being here. To start, I'm going to read part of the International Women's Day official definition. Then I want you to say what this day means for you. For our listeners, the full definition is that International Women's Day is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating women's equality. So Kimberly, that's a book definition, but to you, what does March 8, International Women's Day, mean?

Ellison-Taylor: Wow, I think they do an amazing job every single year with themes that matter and that resonate. This year's theme [#BreakTheBias] is especially important because we are making some progress, but not nearly as much as what we are fully capable of making. So, thinking about how we elevate and celebrate the achievements of women, of leaders who are doing things in every aspect of professional work, and work that is sometimes seen and work that's not seen, and just to have that theme capture all of those different things for women, not just in the United States but around the world, is powerful.

Amato: You mentioned progress on some fronts. Over the years, I guess you have seen some things change, especially for women in the accounting profession. Do you have any examples of things getting better on that front?

Ellison-Taylor: Yes, and it's very visible. I am excited by the numbers of women who have earned their partnership and are being recognized for the work that they are doing in the public accounting world. I'm also really excited by the numbers of women in business and industry who are moving forward and advancing in their careers and that would be the same as nonprofit, government, education, and consulting.

We are building a table of opportunity, and we're helping each other along the way and we have an amazing ally system and more leaders who recognize that inclusive leadership is a differentiator in their work. Women are absolutely part of that success model that's being built. Yes, we do see it. It's a little slow in some cases, but it is definitely visible.

As I said, Neil, I know that directionally, we are 48% or more of the labor force, certainly depending on where you look, we could be at least 50% of graduating classes. Yet in many instances, our numbers are not commensurate at all with that at the leadership level. I'm talking about the big table.

We know that we are working in entry-level fields, mid-tier fields, but now we're coming for the big table. We want the CEO positions. We want the chief financial officer roles. We want to sit at the executive table where decisions are being made and have greater influence, and so yes, we're willing to work for it. We're willing to earn it. We're not willing to have anyone say that we're the token woman or that we just got put at the table because we're women. We want to make sure that our value and our contributions are recognized.

Amato: What steps should organizations take to make sure they're empowering women to afford them those opportunities?

Ellison-Taylor: There are a number of things, Neil, I think that organizations can do. The first thing they have to do, I think, is provide some training, that there is totally some training that is needed as it relates to how you help different people — men and women, for what it's worth — as they go through different seasons of their lives.

We are talking about an environment over the last two years has been incredible — sad for some, incredible opportunities for others. It's not what I would've envisioned, because who could have known that we would've had an environment where we've had to work on all cylinders, leveraging technology, leveraging lots of communication skills, leveraging ways to reach our team members, even more than we've had before, to reinforce the culture, and I think we're going to need to continue absolutely to do that.

I don't know if I think inherently people just wake up and, in addition to doing technical work, understand the need to make sure people are being brought along for the journey. And especially as they move from one level to the next level to the next level, how do they ensure that we don't lose people unless that's their choice along the way? It is about choice. We are in an employment market where it is an employee's market, so it is all about the choice.

But that's what I'd like us to think about is, is it really someone's choice, if we don't provide them the flexibility that they need to take care of their home responsibilities? Is it really a choice if we don't provide the peer groups, the training that they need, in order to even work with someone that's different than them? Sometimes it feels like there's no choice. In order to remove those barriers, employers need to be aware of what they are. So, that's the first thing.

The second thing, I think, is also about stretching and providing challenging assignments so that when it's time for us to get promoted or to be considered, we don't have to hear, "So and so doesn't have executive presence" or "They're not ready." But when you ask the question on what does "executive presence" mean or what does "not being ready" mean, there's not a clear answer on what that means, and so we definitely need the training.

We don't want to get there and not be prepared. As a matter of fact, Neil, you may have heard this, but we will take the time to make sure we are more than prepared, because many of us have grown up with hearing that we have to work twice as hard to get half the credit. We are familiar with that, we're comfortable with that notion, but it has to also be a playing field that we can play in.

If we are not providing the engagement competencies that you'd like us to exhibit, if we're not doing the technical work or have the technical understanding that you'd like, as our employer we're counting on you and holding you accountable, Mr. CEO, to help us get there.

It could be Ms. CEO, for that matter, we just want to make sure that when we think across the spectrum of opportunity, the people, the process, the technology, that we have a seat at those tables and we are driving and enabling influence with the tools and the resources that are needed and fully empowered to lead the organization.

Amato: That's good advice for those organizations. I'd like to turn and shift it a different way, slightly. Especially on this day, what advice do you have for young professional women?

Ellison-Taylor: Take your seat, ladies, take your seat! I say that because I'm all about individual accountability too, Neil. It's not just on the employers, it's on us, too. We have to be self-aware — shockingly so — so that we know if the role is calling for 10 different skill sets and competencies, more than likely by the time the job is being placed or someone's discussing it with you, you've already been ready.

This is the year where we're not training our bosses anymore. That means the boss is us. That means that the next time they're looking for someone to lead, especially we're listed as number two on the succession plan, we've been there, the heir apparent for years. It's time to take our seat at the table.

So that means already planning to move forward, and working out with our leaders, if you need accommodations, if you need flexibility, if you need a hybrid work environment, if you do need those technical, people, leadership skills, that you are identifying what those competencies are. As a matter of fact, my call to action is that we would really, I would say, offer the opportunity to meet with our leaders to talk about our own personal development plans so that we can really get clarity around what we need in order to advance.

The time to find out that you don't have the skill sets or the training or the experience needed is not when the role is about to be filled. Let's not have any misunderstandings about what is needed or what is being sought after, because if we don't get the role, it should be clear that we weren't going to get it in the first place. There shouldn't be any surprises.

Amato: Now, as mentioned on a recent JofA podcast, I don't know if you know this, but you got a shoutout from Calvin Harris of the National Urban League. His exact words were that you are a legend but, "She always defers if you call her something like that, but she's obviously been a legend." I know you truly don't like having such words thrown your way, but I do want to ask how you approach your standing in the profession as a role model for others.

Ellison-Taylor: Definitely not a legend. I'm definitely not a legend. John W. Cromwell Jr., Mary T. Washington Wiley, Benjamin King — they are all legends. If I have even a little bit of something that they did and had that helped them get through to being a part of the top 100 Black CPAs in this country, then I am honored indeed.

Those are excellent words that I will cherish, but I'm still working on it. I'm still a work in progress. That's why Calvin is right. I'm not owning it because I still have work to do. I definitely understand the assignment. But understanding the assignment means if you are the first, you can't be the only. It also means that other little girls and little boys are looking up to you to help shatter the glass ceiling and help tread new pathways for them so hopefully it's easier for them in their careers.

I think each person, everyone, has a responsibility to help enable and empower the next generation of leaders. I'm willing to do my part, and I'm willing to do as much as I can so that hopefully we wouldn't have to have conversations about progress because everyone will be fully enabled and fully capable of moving the ball forward.

It's daunting because the work is daunting. People have different backgrounds. Certainly, Neil, women of color are not advancing as fast or as far, in some cases, as our Caucasian female counterparts. But, we know that, and I'm fortunate to have many of my colleagues who are hand in hand with me saying, "Kimberly, what can we do?"

As a matter of fact, for many of the opportunities that I've been afforded, it was my Caucasian female colleagues, Caucasian men who absolutely came forward and said, "What can we do to help you? How can we support you?" We've got to figure out how to scale that so it's not a one-by-one, but it's more people getting more support.

There are so many amazing leaders that are waiting to be tagged in; they just don't know what to do. But if given the opportunity, they are willing to be mentors, they are willing to be sponsors. They're putting their own political credibility and capital on the line in order to pull people of color forward, and in particular, women of color. I'm grateful for that. Watching their example really galvanizes me to do more and to do better at trying to be a role model for others. Thank you, Neil, for that question.

Amato: Kimberly, thank you. We appreciate you being on the show.

Ellison-Taylor: Absolutely, Neil. Anytime.

Amato: Again, that was Kimberly Ellison-Taylor for the March 8 episode to highlight International Women's Day. In other news, national taxpayer advocate Erin Collins spoke recently on the AICPA's Town Hall meeting to about 9,000 participants. Collins said that CPAs and other tax professionals can help the Taxpayer Advocate Service identify the most acute problems within the Internal Revenue Service. Paul Bonner has the coverage of that story, a continuing one, as service issues have plagued the IRS and resulted in a backlog of returns and correspondence from last year.

And Ken Tysiac has an article that can help those wanting to donate to the people of Ukraine. Doing research about the charities that could be seeking donations can help keep the money out of the hands of fraudsters and getting it to the intended recipients. Be sure to check out that article if you're thinking about making a donation.

That coverage as well as the Town Hall meeting coverage will be linked in the show notes for this episode. A reminder, especially if you're finding this podcast useful, to subscribe to it, to give us a rating and a review wherever you listen, and to share the Journal of Accountancy podcast with people who might like it. Thank you for listening.