business model that cuts down on busy season.
“We have a different targeted client base than most firms,” Kirk explained. “We focus on bigger clients that need year-round service, which has made us much less compliant- and statement-focused. We don’t have a really huge busy season, like a lot of firms have, followed by dead time. It’s pretty steady all year-round … That’s what enables us to be so flexible, to allow that. We don’t have a super crazy volume of work during peak season. People don’t get burned out.”
Regardless of operating model, flexible work environments are a constant across the board in the Best Firms for Women. For Bellevue, Washington-based Berntson Porter & Co., it’s a matter of respect, and an integral part of the firm’s mission.
“Our core values, impact statement, emphasize treating everyone with respect,” said Mary Actor, president of Berntson Porter, a firm with 96 staff members, 58 percent of them women. “We retain women by prioritizing flexible work hours and paid-time off. Employees can adjust their schedule to whatever, as long as they’re producing results.”
Additionally, the firm conducts “wage reviews each year to ensure salary equality,” Actor continued. “It’s a cornerstone of Berntson Porter’s values, the pursuit of continuous improvements.”
Syracuse, N.y.-based Fust Charles Chambers credits flexible work schedules as the top reason for the firm’s women-friendly workplace, where 52 percent of its 82 staff members are female.
“Modified work arrangements, such as flex time and reduced hours, and employees who regularly work from home — such programs have allowed for career/life integration whereby we are retaining more women at the firm at that pivotal four-to-seven year mark,” commented Angela Franco, a partner, executive committee member and head the firm’s tax department.
According to the 2018 Accounting MOVE Project Report, women have relative parity with men through the four-to-seven-year mark, and all levels of management up to director, a role that was 47 percent female in 2018. Above that, at the management committee, partner and principal levels, women fall to 24 or 25 percent.
Breaking with tradition
Advancing women to these leadership roles requires the same actions firms should implement to retain all employees, said Actor.
“It’s always going to come down to busy season hours, and work/life integration is always a challenge,” Actor said. “Sometimes it takes a little bit of time to figure that out. An individual just starting out in public accounting, their life changes a little bit. Public accounting is not easy, considering the work requirements. Are there ways you like to work better, alternative work locations — to make it easier — are all part of driving that.”
Firm leaders we spoke with concede that a flexible workplace, which can include unlimited paid time-off, might require a learning curve.
“One of the biggest challenges, with policies that are very flexible, is when [someone] is new to the workforce, they don’t have enough guidelines to figure out what they should be doing,” Kirk explained. “We’ve tried to handle those on an individual basis — we didn’t have people trying to take advantage, but they didn’t understand what the guidelines are. If they have unlimited PTO, they didn’t understand how much [time] you should be taking off.”
Sometimes, it’s leadership perceptions that need adjusting.
“From a generational standpoint, understanding it’s OK for people to work alternative schedules,” Actor said. “They might not work full-time for a portion of their career, and that’s OK. That applies to both men and women, to be adaptable to the current environment — the world is a different place now. With the technology resources, and all that stuff, you don’t have to sit in an office. Consider the bigger picture, the old-school mentality of thinking you have to be in your seat [at the office] to be a productive member of the firm. A lot of firms are like that.”
Firms that adopt more progressive policies help combat the profession’s negative stereotypes, according to Kirk: “It doesn’t have to be the complete and total sweatshop you typically think about when you think about public accounting.”
Actor would agree that an image overhaul is essential to attracting women to a profession struggling both to hire talent and with a large wave of baby boomer