The profession’s promising but slow pace in advancing women leaders
One of the benefits of trawling through all the data brought in by our Top 100 Firms and Regional Leaders survey is that we can occasionally tease out the beginning of a trend, or get a glimpse of the future in today’s facts.
One of those moments of serendipity from the most recent report (which was released last month) involved the fact that we saw far more women listed as chief executives and firm managing partners than ever before. A quick dive into data from the previous years revealed that the trend was real — since 2014, the number of women leading Top 100 Firms has more than tripled, while the number leading members of our Firms to Watch list (basically, those just below the threshold for the T100) had doubled.
Doubling and tripling the number of women in high-profile positions at large firms is definitely movement in the right direction. Roughly half of the accounting workforce is female, but women make up only about 22 percent of firm partners, according to the American Institute of CPAs. Lower levels of representation at the highest levels make it much less likely that women will pursue those career paths, since it’s harder to envision them doing so — both for the women themselves, and for the people who should be hiring, mentoring, and otherwise shepherding them toward the highest ranks of the profession.
So any increase in visibility for women in accounting leadership is (or should be) welcome. And it’s particularly welcome in the most high-profile firm positions in the profession, with three out of four of the Big Four firms helmed by women.
That 75 percent, though, is the high-water mark of female representation at the highest level. As noted, the average for all firms is 22 percent. And that doubling and tripling we mentioned above is from a ridiculously low base: In 2014, only 2 percent of the Top 100 had a female managing partner; by the end of 2018 that had soared to ... 7 percent. That’s less than one in 10, and it will drop a bit in the middle of the year, when Cathy Engelbert’s term at Deloitte ends. The Firms to Watch are slightly better off — the number has doubled from three to six out of roughly 45 firms, for 13 percent — but that’s not much more than one in 10.
That number is too low, and that pace of change is too slow. Some may suggest that this improvement will build on itself, and it probably will, as more women see that they, too, can lead firms and are given the opportunity to do so — but not fast enough to serve the needs of the profession. Simply put, accounting needs more women leaders because it needs more leaders, period, and the demographics are such that it will soon not be able to leave any vein of talent unexplored.
The same argument, of course, applies to minorities (for some useful ideas about tapping into unexplored talent pools, see Opinion, page 13), but there the issue is more about drawing them to the profession in the first place. Women are already very present in accounting; the issue is figuring out how to get more of them into leadership positions — and fast.