Retaining Women CPAs; Firms Can Benefit through Programs That Help Keep Talented Female Professionals

By Alter, JoAnne | Journal of Accountancy, May 1991 | Go to article overview

Retaining Women CPAs; Firms Can Benefit through Programs That Help Keep Talented Female Professionals


Alter, JoAnne, Journal of Accountancy


Will CPA firms be able to hold on to top talent in the future? The answer may depend to a large extent on their success in retaining women CPAS. In the last 20 years, women have entered higher paying, traditionally male dominated professions in increasing numbers. But in no field has the increase in females, and the challenges resulting from it, been more profound than in the accounting profession. In 1977, 28% of all graduating accounting students were female, while today, roughly 50% of all new accountants are women.

In a profession with a relatively high turnover rate, human resources are an important asset. CPA firms that fail to respond to the needs of thE! increasing number of women CPAs could well find themselves at a competitive disadvantage in the future. Although attracting female CPAs isn't currently a problem for firms, it could become one if talented young women perceive firms as failing to retain and promote females. This article reports on a survey on professional staff conducted last year by the American Institute of CPAs management of an accounting practice committee that examined the effect women have had on the profession. (To obtain a copy of Management of an Accounting Practice Committee Survey on Professional Staff, call (212) 5756438.) It also describes programs and approaches taken by firms that have made a concerted effort to promote female CPAS and why they've succeeded.

NEW FACES

The survey found that firms definitely have been changed by the influx of women into the profession: 46% of firms in 1990 had an increase in the proportion of female professionals over five years earlier. How do these new accountants fare after they join a firm? Two-thirds of the managing partners questioned by the MAP committee said men and women were equally interested in professional upward mobility. However, according to the American Woman's Society of CPAs, fewer than 20% of all managerial positions in accounting firms are held by women, even though almost 40% of all women CPAs have been in the field for at least 10 years.

Women may face subtle roadblocks preventing advancement or may be forced to put their careers on hold while their children are young because of the difficulty of juggling a demanding professional life and parenthood. Whatever the cause, the result often is higher turnover as women look elsewhere for better opportunities or more flexible schedules.

Many men in top management positions recognize they're in danger of losing talented women but don't know what to do about it. Brenda Acken, former chairperson of the AICPA upward mobility of women committee, which provided input for the MAP committee survey, reports that an increasing number of managing partners have begun asking what other firms are doing to retain female professional staff.

TAKING ACTION

Although firms may be concerned about losing female professionals, few have formal programs for retaining them. An overwhelming majority of managing partners told the MAP committee their firms had made no formal efforts to deal with management issues relating to female staff, issues such as alternative alternative career paths and childcare. But the lack of such programs clearly affects female staff members: When the committee asked staff members if they believed they could attain partnership and be a parent, 81% of men said yes but only 41% of women believed they could do both.

The firms that have created programs for women believe doing so is a sound business decision. "Public accounting is a game of finding and keeping top talent. Half of that talent happens to be female. If we can keep these top people, we're at a competitive advantage," according to Bill Bufe, the partner in charge of personnel at Plante & Moran, in Southfield, Michigan. Bufe says that in 1986, partners at his firm decided to conduct a staff needs assessment. "Employees were asked, What would make it easier for you to continue to work at Plante & Moran? …

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