By Jackie Cardello, CPA | Managing Partner
What does it mean to inspire young women leaders? It is much more than lip service to hiring and promoting women and internal policies meant to encourage leadership. While progressive policies, leadership development, and mentoring programs are all important, leading by example is the most powerful message. As the managing partner of a recognized regional accounting firm, I have witnessed the power of personal involvement in the development of women leaders.
When you think about it, we’re all the beneficiaries by way of several outstanding women leaders. Notable women dating back as early as the 1800s have paved the way for CPAs. Like Christine Ross, the first woman CPA.
Though she scored in the top three after taking the CPA exam in 1898, just two years after New York established the licensure legislation, she was stalled more than 10 years before receiving her license – simply because she was a woman. Despite her licensure delays, Ross immediately started working for Manning’s Yacht Agency in New York and had women’s organizations and wealthy businesswomen as clients.
More than 120 years later, the accounting industry still has a hard time retaining women. While the accounting industry in general struggles with high staff turnover, women in particular have difficulties with longevity due to the challenges of balancing client work, ongoing professional education, and business development with home and family. The issue is even more pronounced among women of childbearing age.
Yes, progress is noticeable as reports like the Move Project Report (2017), NYSSCPA–Rosenberg Survey (2018) and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2018) show women and men nearly represent the accounting industry 50/50. And yes, the percentage of women in senior management, director and non-equity partner levels have had significant spikes, but the stagnant growth among women partners in firms nationwide remains problematic. According to AICPA’s 2017 CPA Firm Gender Survey, “women [represent] only 22 percent of partners in CPA firms,” up one percent from 2015.
The industry has tried a number of methods to remedy the female talent drain. Examples of popular industry efforts include:
- Recruiting campaigns aimed at women
- Women’s leadership development initiatives
- Firm policies that allow for schedule flexibility
An individualized, flexible work arrangement is an area many of our firms have already explored. Gone are the days when men and women spend their entire work day in the office five days a week. Our firms have invested in technology for good reason ─ it allows us to travel, service our clients, minimize commuting time and spend time with our families. Many CPAmerica firms I’ve spoken to have used these flexible working arrangements very successfully to support their emerging women leaders.
These initiatives and policies are all important, but in the end it is up to those of us who have achieved significant milestones in our careers to show the next generation of female leaders the way to achieve leadership positions in our firms and in the industry.
Our industry’s current female leaders must add “mentor” to their long list of responsibilities. As if their list wasn’t already long enough, women in leadership positions must carve out time in the day to mentor others. They should share their own experiences.
For example, Gelman, Rosenberg, and Freedman (GRF) maintains an informal program aimed at helping young mothers plan their return to work. Led by one of our senior female partners who volunteers her time, the objective is to discuss potential challenges (like childcare) before they become obstacles for the career paths of new mothers. As a result of our efforts at GRF, we’ve stabilized turnovers at 9 percent (the national average is 17 percent), and with more than 40 percent of our leadership positions held by women, we’ve strengthened our career advancement pathways firm-wide.
We must facilitate one-to-one discussions with women to understand where they struggle and provide advice that helps them navigate the path to leadership. You should ask women for their ideas on how you can improve the workplace to support them. Hear their concerns and find ways to implement policies that facilitate growth and development. Be sure you’re providing a safe space that welcomes innovation and feedback, then keep an open door policy to ensure the conversation will continue.
What we all want is to be heard, understood and appreciated. This includes our future leaders.
The value added to your firm is most evident when new opportunities for women emerge and high-performing women stay and advance. It improves your culture, team performance, and bottom line. When women succeed, women and men benefit.
Productivity and collaborations are enhanced. According to a Gallup study, men and women bring different perspectives to the same issue or situation. Their ideas and insights often diverge, enabling improved problem-solving capabilities and leads to elevated performance.
Firms are also positioned for significant market share growth when women are included. According to KPMG’s Women’s Study, 69 percent of women will proactively ask to be involved in unfamiliar projects, leading to an increasingly diverse and expanded client base.
To maintain a competitive edge, you must recruit and maintain a high-performing, highly-engaged staff. And this must include women. I assure you, the investment is well worth the time it takes to develop the next generation of female leaders. It is critical to our firms and to our industry to cultivate women leaders.