Reprinted with permission – CPA Practice Management Forum
With more than half the nation’s 10.5 million companies owned by women and nearly 60% of new college accounting majors being women, the value of expanding opportunities for women to staff and lead CPA firms is beyond question. Sounds good, but what’s really happening on the ground? This article addresses the issues and proposes a strategy for assessing how well you’re doing and ideas for creating high-value change.
Our professional demographics are sobering. There simply are not enough accountants to meet current needs. Recruiting and retention are among the top hot button issues for public accounting firms. And although women accountants are being eagerly recruited by CPA firms, only about 15 percent achieve partner status. Houston we have a retention problem! Bottom line: Attracting and keeping women is a huge hedge against the shortage of CPAs.
What’s in it for you? Plenty. The incentives for creating opportunities for women CPAs are varied and include:
- Women’s programs can drive incremental revenue when the firm includes a woman-as-buyer niche focus that plays to the number of women-owned businesses.
- Having women on board raises your firm’s visibility, improves its image and confers a competitive advantage by enabling you to not only differentiate yourself and send the message that you’re “in tune” with today’s business, but attract more high-potential women. Women look for firms that walk the talk.
- The presence of women mirrors client diversity. Statistically, at least half of all decision makers among our clients are women – which includes business owners and non-owner executives.
- You are competing against other firms to recruit college graduates. Positioning yourself as an employer-of-choice for women will give you the recruiting edge.
- Women excel at relationships and accounting is a relationship business.
Firms that have made this a priority have experienced stellar results. The Big Four statistics are impressive. Deloitte, first with their program in 1992, has closed the turnover gap between genders. At PriceWaterhouseCoopers 95% of all staff members who chose reduced hours said that option contributed to their decision to remain at the firm. KPMG has increased female partners 44% since 2003. At Ernst & Young, women accounted for 27% of top leadership promotions last year.
The fact is that firms are finding that the changes they institute reflect societal changes regarding family structure and responsibilities. They are good for not only women, but everyone in the firm.
Examining the firm’s core belief regarding changes. As well as examining your policies, it’s important to look at your core beliefs to ensure that old thinking is not impeding new possibilities.
- Open up the discussion with your partners. Make sure they understand the reality and the need, and that they’re on board for change. This is a business proposition, not a feel-good social program.
- Develop a cultural perception survey , as discussed below, to assess how all members of your firm believe you are doing in the area of recruiting and retaining female talent.
- Evaluate conditions and programs including:
- Top management support
- Flexible work options
- Skill-building training
- Recruitment and retention programs
- Presence of a family-friendly culture
Cultural assessment survey. A women’s initiative need not be a programmatic attempt to restructure a firm. Rather, it starts with an internal review of practices and policies and leverages existing strengths. A cultural assessment, including a survey of the workforce, can point to specific high priority areas to address in launching an initiative. Such surveys usually ask respondents answer using a rating system according to which 1 is “strongly agree” and 5 is “strongly disagree.” The results point you to specific things that can guide you in the right direction with your program. Sample questions might include:
- I feel the firm’s culture supports my efforts.
- This firm has a female friendly culture.
- There are growth opportunities, including role models, mentoring, networking, etc., specifically for women to advance to partner.
- There are alternative career paths for those people who do not want to be partner.
- There are just as many opportunities for women as there are for men in partnership ranks.
- Our firm allows the use of alternative work schedules and alternative work locations.
- I can use alternative work schedules or locations without harming my chances for advancement.
Prepare for Change
If your firm is like most, your research is going to highlight opportunities for improvement. Firms originally built with men, not women, in mind today are chock full of females, but are not fully evolved to accommodate their needs. Take a good look at your infrastructure to uncover constraints to getting and keeping good women.
Do you still have archaic rules about working (or not working) from home created long before the advent of the Blackberry and high-speed Internet? How fresh are your policies regarding less-than-fulltime employment, including for partners? Do your partners harbor outdated beliefs about who needs to be where to be promoted?
Gaining buy-in from the leadership is crucial to a program getting off on the right foot. Since most firm leaders are men, this means them! Retaining and developing successful women is a joint gender issue. Leaders/men need to be educated on the business case behind a prospective program and come to an understanding that this is important for the future of the firm. A good way to do this is to draw on outside resources such as articles, presentations and experts who can articulate what’s going on in the profession and why. Only then will you unbegrudgingly achieve the push needed to get a success program off the ground.
In order to get in the mindset of making cultural change, think about the game of golf. Consider the game as it exists. Now think about how the game would be different if it had been designed by women. I can think of quite a few ways:
- The game would be shorter to accommodate family needs.
- Carts would be comfortably upholstered and have piped-in music.
- Golf courses would be filled with wildflowers and fountains.
- More bathrooms please!
You get the idea. Change is not impossible, it’s just hard to imagine. Armed with your research, gather the women in your firm and encourage them to begin to envision a women-friendly firm. Record their input and use it to develop a workable plan that fits your firm’s culture.
In creating a women’s program, you guarantee your firm a pool of committed, talented professionals to meet your needs today. With promising opportunities to help ensure the future of your firm, it is time to at least consider reaching out to the women in your firm. finding what they value in a workplace and instituting programs that address those needs. The CPA shortage is not going to disappear by ignoring it. Reach out to women and mine this abundant resource.