02/10/17 | Career, Motivation

Why Women Make Up Only 22 Percent of Partners in the U.S

Jess Davis explains why women make up a only small portion of the accounting field and what can be done to change it. 

Women in Accounting

The accounting field is booming, the average pay is climbing, and women are increasingly becoming more involved. As a matter of fact, women make up more than 50% of the accountants in the US, Europe, and Canada.

But, according to Catalyst.org, females make up only 22% of partners in the United States. Still, that’s a big improvement considering that in 1989 only 1% of accountants were women. Even a few years ago, there were less women in upper level positions. Let’s keep this trend up to build a stronger and more inclusive profession!

Lack of Leading Ladies

So, why has accounting been a boys club for so long? What’s keeping more women from rising to senior level jobs? Well, accounting isn’t really any different from many other historically male-dominated businesses. It is difficult for women to have relatable role models when there are not a lot of women in leadership roles.

While women attaining leadership roles is becoming more of the norm, the Harvard Business Review explains how it is still an issue—basically, there are not many women in leadership roles in the accounting and finance world, and thus it is difficult for women to have female role models. Entrenched older views among the executive members of companies also plays a role.

I see this as an opportunity for women to break through and start becoming role models for future generations. For everyone (men and women) hoping to move up the ranks, I suggest finding a sponsor. Mentors are great, but a sponsor will be extremely beneficial to your career goals. Find someone higher up for whom you like working, especially if they have similar values. This person can be male or female. Let them know you consider them a role model as you continue to do great work for them. By impressing your sponsor and proving yourself to be a valuable asset to the firm, your opportunities for advancement only grow.

Not a Family-Friendly Work Schedule

The world of accounting is a hard-working environment and traditionally not the best at keeping a healthy work-life balance. It’s not unusual for people to work insane hours and be proud about it. I’ve even met a guy who bragged about sleeping in his office during audit season, not coming home to his family for over a week.

This type of culture in the accounting field is not desired by employees who want a life outside the office. So accountants don’t make it to senior level positions simply because they don’t want that type of life anymore. And for women, this is even more common if they decide to have a family.

The reality is that women are still the main caregivers, making career goals a bit more of a challenge. This is especially true when the work environment is as tough as the accounting world is notoriously known for.

An experiment was performed by sociology professors to test the motherhood penalty. In the experiment, college students were given information packets (resume, personal fact sheet, notes from interviews, etc.) on two different individuals. After the students realized that the applicants are equally qualified, the researches changed the information packets to include that one individual was a parent. When the male applicant was revealed to be a father, there were no changes in employment or salary. For the female applicant who was revealed to be a mother, she was significantly less likely to be hired and her starting salary was $11,000 less than childless women.

This bias is based off the assumption that mothers are inherently less competent and committed to their work. However, in a follow up experiment, researchers discovered that if a performance review showing that a mother demonstrated a heroic level of commitment to a previous job was included with the other information, mothers were not seen as less competent or committed.

Why do Accountants Need Male AND Female Leaders?

It is very important for men and women to work together to promote talent in the accounting field. Most people think that it will just be a matter of time before gender parity is achieved. But time isn’t the only thing that can help solve this problem. Women have been entering the accounting profession in equal numbers to men for 25 years and are now overtaking men. Clearly, there is not an attraction issue for women in accounting. Instead, as seen by the fact that women hold fewer than one fifth of partnership positions, women face a retention and advancement issue when it comes to gender diversity.

Today, many business leaders around the world have no idea that women are now the majority of university graduates from all over the world, even including Saudi Arabia. Most leaders are concerned with competency, not differences between how men and women work. Not many ever think about it, but balance is a contributor to performance, innovation, and customer relations. This can be seen through mixed gender networks aimed at balancing management, rather than just promoting women. What can we do to enhance an organization’s ability to retain talented women so they can have an equal opportunity to advance into higher level positions? A critical first step is to make a robust business case that provides the motivation for successful initiatives and encourage management commitment.

Changes for the Future

A major transformation that has been on AICPA’s mind is changing the up-or-out culture that accounting is known for. “The next generation of CPA firm leaders is demanding that firms create a family-friendly environment conducive to a healthy work-life balance,” the AICPA report observes. “Firms have to adapt to changing worker concerns.” And all workers, men and women, are wanting more flexibility. Updates in technology are not only allowing accountants to work more efficiently, but also helping accountants to work from anywhere at anytime. The new culture emerging provides hardworking men and women an equal opportunity to perform his or her job on his or her terms.  

Accounting firms should seriously consider having some programs that encourage advancement of women to strengthen a business. A flow of talented women is needed to maintain the pipeline of potential replacements for the thousands of Baby Boomers that will be retiring over the next several years. By having a pool of ready-to-advance women, there will be more options for retiring partners. It would be a shame for a firm to lose talented CPAs because there is a lack of opportunity of advancement. Diversity-related initiatives are intended to level the playing field for both men and women, not to separate them into groups.

Also, organizations that support women’s initiatives have an extra advantage. They are building a stronger and more inclusive company that can attract and keep emerging leaders from a diverse talent pool. This strategic advantage is one that can only help accountants successfully advance in the future.

Header Photo Credit: Pexels.com


Jess Davis has helped hundreds of students pass the CPA Exam with study tips and strategies on her review website Beat The CPA.

Jess Davis

Jess Davis

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