The pro­fes­sion’s promis­ing but slow pace in ad­vanc­ing women lead­ers

Accounting Today - - Contents - BY DANIEL HOOD

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.

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