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Opportunity and Diversity in the Accounting Profession

We've Come a Long Way, but There Are More Obstacles to Overcome

Marilyn A. Pendergast, CPA

In 1966, I was hired as a junior accountant at Urbach, Kahn & Werlin (UKW). There were very few women—or minority—CPAs during the 60s, so it was unusual that UKW had not one, but two women partners: Alice Blanchard and Dorothy Collins. Sidney Urbach, Howard Kahn, and Eli Werlin were among the few at that time who consistently hired women and minority candidates—and what's more, they promoted based on performance. This was a time when some clients would refuse to allow a woman to work on their account, when traveling out of town was not considered appropriate for female staff, and when career women were frequently met with admonishments like, “You should stay home and take care of your family” or “You're taking a job that a man needs.” Even 20 years into my career in public accounting, I still attended many conferences where I would be one of only a handful of women among hundreds of men.

Diversity in the Profession

The role of women and minorities in the accounting profession has changed markedly since 1994, when I was president of the NYSSCPA, and the portraits of past presidents in the hallway of the NYSSCPA offices now include several women and minority faces. There are women and minority professionals in the management levels at most firms, including all of the Big Four. The NYSSCPA has an outstanding female executive director, and in 2015, a woman serves as CEO of Deloitte LLP, and another as chair of the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC).

The profession itself has changed tremendously in the last 50 years—even in the last 15. A wide range of career paths and opportunities is available for a CPA, whether in the public or private sphere, in tax or accounting, forensics, financial planning, government service, or education. The CPA credential gets you off to a great start anywhere. Technology, the movement toward a global economy, increased regulation, and the complexity of new business structures all provide great challenges, as well as opportunities.

Women began entering the public accounting profession in roughly equal numbers with men about 25 years ago. Even so, in 2012, women represented 44% of accounting employees at CPA firms, but only 19% of partners, according to an AICPA survey (Chris Baysden, “Supply and Demand for Accounting Talent at Record Levels,” Journal of Accountancy, September 2013). Women at the CFO level in the Fortune 500 represent fewer than 12% (Catalyst, unpublished data, September 2014).

It's clear that time has not eliminated the gender disparity in the accounting profession or elsewhere in the business community. We've come a long way, but there is still much that needs to be done.

Championing Ourselves

Our professional leaders might benefit from studying the recent research about attracting and retaining the best employees while meeting the needs of today's professionals for work-life balance and personal fulfillment. In “Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers” (Harvard Business Review, September 2013), Herminia Ibarra, Robin J. Ely, and Deborah Kolb discuss what they describe as “secondgeneration gender bias.”

Stereotypes and organizational practices can be difficult obstacles; the challenges are not easily recognized and they may even be disguised as special opportunities. There is often a “catch-22” for professional women: Either we're not aggressive enough, or we're “ball-breakers.” We must continue to be the primary caretakers of our homes and families, but we must also “lean in” at work to be respected. We're asked to be “team players,” but we are criticized for not “stepping up” to leadership roles.

In an interview 15 years ago, I said that “the greatest challenges for women in the accounting profession continue to be the difficulties in balancing personal and work life, particularly if the ability to relocate and/or travel frequently is a necessary part of your career path. Women and men need to have strong support from their firms or employers, as well as their families, in order to reach their full potential in their professional lives.”

That is still true today. The CPA profession is rewarding, challenging, and ever changing. Telecommuting, flexible work schedules, job sharing—all are possible and should provide more opportunities for balancing work and family. “Women in Management: Delusions of Progress” by Nancy M. Carter and Christine Silva (Harvard Business Review, March 2010) is well worth reading and discussing with leaders in every organization. As this article notes, it's especially troubling that after all the efforts made to create opportunities for women, inequity remains entrenched.

Women need to be proactive in championing themselves and their leadership attributes and strengths. Firms and other employers need to enhance efforts to recognize, develop, and reward excellence, without regard to gender. The first step is to recognize that gender bias still exists. Then we can focus on education and organizational changes so that our profession continues to attract the best candidates and reaps the benefits of a diverse, vibrant workforce.

I love my job. Being a CPA has provided tremendous opportunities for me for nearly 50 years. I'm confident that the next generation of young women and men will continue to be fulfilled and challenged as well.

Marilyn A. Pendergast, CPA. Partner. UHY LLP.

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