A CPA leader's view on the rise of women in the profession

Hosted by Neil Amato

“With women in particular, small moments matter.” Those are the words of Lara Abrash, CPA, chair and CEO of Deloitte & Touche LLP, about how seemingly inconsequential decisions can have a big effect on how women advance in the workplace. Hear more of Abrash’s thoughts on promoting diversity and on why the time was right for Deloitte to publish a new report on its workforce composition.

What you’ll learn from this episode:

  • The career advice Abrash received from her mother.
  • Abrash’s advice for how employers can better support women.
  • Why Deloitte decided to release its inaugural Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Transparency Report.
  • Why the AICPA is pushing for extensions to the Paycheck Protection Program application deadline and the individual tax filing date.
  • The tax-related questions CPAs and their clients may have regarding certain 2020 unemployment benefits.

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, a JofA senior editor, at Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com.


Neil Amato: March is Women’s History Month, March 8 is International Women’s Day, and today on the Journal of Accountancy podcast, we’re going to talk some more about those observances with Chair and CEO of Deloitte & Touche LLP Lara Abrash. Lara, welcome to the podcast.

Lara Abrash: Thanks for having me.

Amato: First, can you tell listeners about your experience as a CPA and why International Women's Day is something that matters to you?

Abrash: Yeah, I’ve been in the world of accounting for 25-plus years. I actually started experiencing accounting when I was about 12 years old, and I fell in love with it. Accounting is the way that you understand business. It’s how you understand how companies make money, and it’s fascinating. It fulfills all my curiosities.

As a woman leader in this business, I’ve seen women really grasp in to being successful. Not only do we bring great, deep STEM experiences with math. It is important. It’s not the most important thing, but it is important. But really what’s equally important is the humanity side of this. Women have just brought great superpowers to this — the ability to connect, the ability to explain the world of accounting. And watching the evolution of women in this profession over the past 25 years has just been amazing. We went from a time that, when I joined the firm, we were talking about a glass ceiling, and that we were going to have a women’s initiative. And it was a focused effort. And now today in our organization, I’m the CEO of our business. People aren’t speaking about breaking the glass ceiling. We have a chair of our firm who’s a female. And the more we see women enter roles of accounting and the wonderful profession, it really is no longer a break through the ceiling. We’re on the other side. It’s been a great, great time to see it. But we have to be there for each other, continue to push each other so we don’t forget the journey of those before us.

Amato: You mentioned being there for each other, pushing each other. In general, how can employers better support women?

Abrash: You know, women come into an organization just like all of us. They want to be their authentic selves. They want to be able to see themselves being in a position to be relevant and have a place to grow in their life. What an employer really needs to do is really understand, for all their employees, how to create an environment of inclusivity that our women in particular can be themselves. Over the life of a woman, particularly if they decide to have children, there are moments that they may need to step out in a different way. A lot of women think that that stepping out is a choice. I think about over a 25- or 30-year career, there are just moments that you can be, I’ll just say, in different degrees of speed and different degrees of risk-taking, and we really just need to support women in all their choices.

For women that don’t have children but have other things they want to do, this is where employers for all of our professionals, it’s incredibly important that we treat this like a 30-year career and we give them things that make them prosper, grow, but more importantly, recognizing outside of our organization, there are things they need from us, and we need to be in a position to support those moments really when they need us and really make them feel important. I often talk about, with women in particular, “Small moments matter.” We as employers sometimes think we’re helping women when we make choices on their behalf, say things like, “You don’t need to do this tonight, because I know you need to go home and take care of your children.” Or, “You likely may not want to do this assignment.” “I won’t even ask them because they probably will feel pressured, so I’ll just not ask them that question. I’ll ask someone else.”

And those small moments, they really probably don’t seem significant at the time, really create a situation in which women don’t get the same opportunity as men. I don’t think, for the most part, these are conscious decisions. I really do think they’re subconscious and honestly well-intentioned. We really need to start thinking about the small moments differently.

Amato: Why is having diverse leadership and a diverse workforce important to you?

Abrash: I think there’s a couple reasons. Diversity from a business perspective is critically important. When you bring people with different backgrounds, whether from their gender, their faith, the way they grew up, their gender preferences, the color of their skin, they just bring a different perspective. If you really are trying to drive a high-performing organization, having everybody think the same way is not going to give you the best answers. So, it’s incredibly important that we provide opportunities for a diverse environment from a business perspective. It’s also the right thing to do from a humanity perspective.

You know, I was raised by my mom, who, when she grew up, women were treated very differently. She was the oldest in her family. She was told she could either be a secretary or a nurse or marry someone rich who could take care of her. There was no option for college. And when she raised me, she told me, “You can be anything you want to be. Baby, the sky’s the limit.” When you have leaders in organizations that really are focused on diversity and set that tone that you can be anything you want to be, it really opens up the possibility for all of our employees, not just the employees that are diverse based on all the things I shared with you.

Amato: Deloitte has recently come out with a new report, for the first time, a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Transparency Report on its workforce composition. Why now for that report?

Abrash: It’s been a tumultuous year for our society, and I think all of us in the business world have recognized that our role around driving diverse environments and our obligation to really improve representation in our organizations and equality and allowing our people to thrive is critically important. And as the accountant on the call, I could tell you, “You don’t get anywhere without accounting for things.” So, the transparency report is really our ability to develop a baseline set of data to hold ourselves accountable but also for others to hold us accountable. We went into this open-minded. We were not trying to mask the numbers. Quite honestly, we’re not proud of everything in that report.

We’ve made a lot of progress around women over the last 20 years and we have more to do, but as you look at other demographics in that report and other cohorts, we have a lot of work to do. We’re really focused on using that as a measure for us. It’s incredibly important that — you can say a lot of things about what you want to do around diversity and representation. But ultimately at the end of the day, as the accountant on the call, I could tell you, “You have to count the numbers.” It was important for us. We’ve gotten really good feedback from our employee base, proud of us not holding back on anything. And we’ve also heard good feedback from our clients and other stakeholders, and I feel really good about it, because in a couple of years, we can look back at this and say, “We made a difference. We really made a difference.”

Amato: Lara, thank you very much.

Abrash: Thanks, Neil.

Amato: In other news, Lisa Simpson, the AICPA’s vice president for Firm Services, told a congressional committee during a hearing Wednesday that Congress should push back the application deadline for the Paycheck Protection Program by at least 60 days. The current application deadline is March 31 for PPP loans. Simpson and other panelists at the hearing on Wednesday detailed obstacles in the application process for PPP applicants.

That date change is not the only one being sought. The AICPA is advocating for a delay in the tax filing date from April 15 to June 15. One reason is that CPAs who devoting time to PPP application questions from clients might not have as much time to devote to tax returns.

Additionally, the new $1.9 trillion stimulus bill approved by Congress includes a provision to exclude some 2020 unemployment benefits from taxable income. That sounds like good news, but it’s leading to questions for CPAs and their clients, especially if those clients have already filed their 2020 taxes.

For more coverage of these topics, visit journalofaccountancy.com for the latest. Thank you for listening to the JofA podcast.