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Mary L. Bennett
Time to level playing field for men and women

Accounting firms and female leaders need to “lean in” to bring balance to the leadership table.

July 15, 2013
by Mary L. Bennett

Lean In, the recent book by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, has sparked new dialogue and analysis regarding the lack of progress of women into leadership roles in corporate America and politics. In the accounting profession, the topic of women leaders has been at the forefront of talent development efforts for more than 20 years.

Women have been present in public accounting in roughly equal numbers to men for a quarter-century, yet only 19% of all public accounting firm owners are women, according to the AICPA’s 2013 Trends in the Supply of Accounting Graduates and the Demand for Public Accounting Recruits. The issues slowing the progress of women in accounting fall into three categories: career-life integration, role modeling, and career advocacy and navigation (for more information, see the AICPA white paper The Attraction, Retention and Advancement of Women Leaders).

Most women and firms concentrate on “work/life balance” concerns when contemplating the lack of progress of women in accounting. While the challenges of career-life integration are affecting women, these issues are increasingly affecting men as well. The world has moved past the concept of work/life balance. The focus now is on flexible work cultures and supporting the integration of satisfying work into an overall life plan.

Firms of the future realize that this planning involves not only the individual but also his or her spouse and family. There is a significant amount of dialogue in the home regarding how the careers of the husband and wife will come together to create the desired family future. And that’s in homes with two parents. The number of single-parent households has grown steadily since 1980, according to data reported by the U.S. Census Bureau. Forward-looking firms recognize the tremendous changes taking place in society regarding the roles that men and women play at home and adjust their policies accordingly. Firms that don’t adjust face the loss of talented young CPAs. Women speak of these issues more openly than the men, because it is expected that they do so, but young men are leaving firms for the same life-issue reasons as women.

Progressive firms also understand that women are in need of role models. Most firms do not have female role models who demonstrate a variety of career models, leadership styles, business development approaches, and career-life integration solutions. Through most of the recent past, the women who have survived the climb to leadership roles have been those who demonstrated a more masculine style in order to “fit in” with traditionally masculine cultures. This narrow role model pool has left very few women with examples to follow who represent diversity in approaches on many key aspects of career progression.

The most powerful yet least understood barrier to the advancement of women in accounting is the lack of career navigation and advocacy assistance that women receive in comparison to their male counterparts. Progression in the world of public accounting is primarily driven by advocacy. In nearly all firms, a partner or group of partners must be willing to bring a new candidate for ownership forward and to sponsor the individual into the partnership. Sponsor relationships between male leaders (who represent 81% of all CPA firm owners) and emerging female leaders do not form as naturally as the relationships between male partners and young men coming up through the ranks. Human beings are more comfortable sponsoring those who remind them of themselves; this is an unconscious bias that drives the status quo.

Another bias that slows the progress of women is the belief that an individual can operate as a fully functioning owner only if he or she is positioned to devote 24/7 to the firm. There are often fears that “sponsoring” a woman will not be an investment that pays off for the long term. This fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As a result, the progress of women is slowed by the lack of advocacy and all that it implies.

Advocates or sponsors do not only bring candidates forward, they also nurture the ambition of these candidates through the rougher waters of a career in accounting. Many essential aspects of becoming an owner and leader are not written down and can be learned only from those who have gone before us. This learning takes place informally in the day-to-day interactions of senior partners and those on the “partner track.” Some of this learning is directly related to demonstrating that one is “leaning in”—in other words engaged, committed, and driven to succeed.

Leaning in is not a one-way interaction

What if the women are “leaning in” but the organization is leaning away in response? What if the organization is not recognizing “leaning in” when it occurs? Many partners have asked me, “Isn’t this concept of ‘leaning in’ the reason for the lack of progress of women?” Some partners have grabbed on to the “leaning in” message as justification for their firm having disproportionately few, if any, female partners. For these male partners, the message is clear: “The women have not been ‘leaning in’ and this is why the numbers look the way they do. We, as partners, have done all we can.” This view is not accurate.

Sandberg’s message is not wrong; women are one side of the “progress equation.” But her message is often taken out of context. The organization represents the other side of a balanced equation. Both the women and the organization need to come together to recognize real changes in society and the marketplace. Engagement in shared dialogue is needed to understand that there is real bias in the systems, processes, cultures, and attitudes within our firms as it relates to women progressing through a traditionally male-dominated profession. When women “lean in,” it often looks different than when their male counterparts do. Women indicate commitment and engagement in different ways than men have done in the past. Women may demonstrate essential leadership skills that are not yet recognized or highly valued in the organization. Women need to understand how all of this plays out as much as organizational leaders do.  

I recently had a meeting with a senior partner and two leaders. One of the leaders was a young man, the other a young woman. The man demonstrated his initiative and willingness to take on a risky assignment by using sports analogies and repeatedly stating that he was on board. The woman demonstrated her commitment and willingness to jump in and take the risk by asking questions about the assignment, assessing the situations, and preparing to plan. After the meeting, the partner said to me, “Obviously he is ready for this and she is not because all she did is ask questions. It is unfortunate because she is really more qualified to lead this.” This commonplace “reading of behavior” and looking for what we have seen in male peers in past situations is an example of not recognizing “leaning in” when it may be there.

It is critical that leaders in the accounting profession recognize that much has changed in society and our marketplace. Some of our very best leaders for the future are represented in the ranks of our female staff and managers. What are we doing to encourage them to remain at the table, to recognize that they bring new and important perspectives that will help move the firm toward a sustainable future? If they lean in, do we meet them halfway? Chances are they have come most of this way without the same access to career navigation opportunities as their male peers. As a career progresses, the experiences and messages women receive will shape the decisions they make and the outcomes they experience. Let’s level the playing field now so that we might have the equal participation of men and women at the leadership table in this profession.

Editor's note: Mary Bennett will speak at the 2013 AICPA Women's Global Leadership Summit, to be held Oct. 24-25 in Washington.

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Mary L. Bennett, MBA, CIA, CEC, is the founder of MLBennett Consulting and has more than 25 years of experience as a client services consultant to the accounting profession. She also is chair of the AICPA Women’s Initiatives Executive Committee.