March is Women’s History Month, and we’re celebrating diversity in the accounting profession and sharing the importance of women connecting with and supporting other women.
It’s been over 120 years since Christine Ross broke barriers and became the ﬁrst female CPA in the country. Times have dramatically changed for women in the workforce since Ross’s 1899 CPA certiﬁcation, and women are continuing to make moves in the accounting and ﬁnancial sector.
According to a January 2022 survey conducted by the Journal of Accountancy , more women are CFOs of Fortune 500 and S&P 500 companies than ever before, and the racial and ethnic diversity of CFOs has also increased. But the number of female CFOs still comes in at 101 out of 682 companies, roughly 15%.
The truth remains that within the accounting profession, women are still widely underrepresented, particularly in leadership roles in both ﬁrms and the corporate ﬁnance sector. However, when many people think about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programming, women don’t always come to mind as a group needing attention, and this is a shortsighted omission.
The numbers don’t add up for female CPAs
Over the past few decades, women have made up 40%–60% of all accounting graduates2, and in general, tend to outperform male students in their programs. But once they start their careers, women seem to face immediate roadblocks – while approximately 60% of accountants and 50% of CPAs are women,3 only around 23% of ﬁrm partners are women.
Small CPA ﬁrms with 10 or fewer CPAs on staﬀ are doing a better job, with more than 50% of women ﬁlling roles from the director/non-equity partner level down to intern. But once a ﬁrm has more than 10 CPAs on staﬀ, the numbers start to drop, and ﬁrms with 100+ CPAs have the lowest percentages of female leaders in any manager or partnership role. In addition, few female leaders are from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups across the board.
Balance and diversity create opportunity
It’s been said many times that diversity is good for business. Countless research has shown that ﬁrms
that strive for increased equality tend to be more successful. They’re also more successful when they take time to regularly utilize feedback from female team members to drive organizational change.
But it’s not just about getting women into the oﬃce; it’s about keeping them there. Retention is important for ﬁrm health and creates a better pathway for women to become leaders and partners. Firms that oﬀer beneﬁts that positively impact women, including ﬂexible work opportunities and paid maternity leave, tend to perform better and see higher retention rates.
What women need to succeed as CPAs
Like most DEI-related challenges, there’s no quick ﬁx to increasing the number of women in the profession and in leadership positions – it’s also important to remember that not all individuals have their sights set on partner and senior-level positions – but continuing to further women in the profession is a win for all, creating a richer workplace and positively impacting your bottom line.
These key areas can help further support women and help them succeed in accounting:
- Early exposure to the profession. If young women don’t see the profession, they won’t see themselves in it. Exposure to opportunities in accounting and ﬁnance should ideally start before they step onto a college campus. For some women, exposure and a budding interest can even encourage them to attend college. Initiatives such as the Society’s scholarships program (funded through the MassCPAs Educational Foundation) allow women and other underrepresented groups to explore the profession, meet CPAs and learn more about the opportunities that exist.
- Mentorship and sponsorship. Mentorship is consistently one of the most critical ways for women to advance. These relationships can provide guidance and a sounding board for career moves. Similarly, a sponsor, someone who is typically at a senior level and actively advocates for a person, can help open doors, make introductions and expand networks.
Women in leadership roles are the ideal mentors and sponsors for junior-level peers, but as the data shows, fewer are available. Male advocates in senior leadership roles are needed to actively provide guidance and help uplift women within their organization and profession.
- Flexibility. Flexible work options are increasingly becoming the norm, and a top wish list item for both female and male staﬀ. While the number of ﬁrms that oﬀer these options – including hybrid work or reduced hours – are increasing, staﬀ who choose to take advantage are often perceived as not being as dedicated to their careers, which can hinder their ability to progress even with a solid work performance. Employers need to not only embrace ﬂexible work options, but they also become more ﬂexible in their vision of what makes a successful leader.
Support through formal DEI initiatives. If your organization is already working on a DEI initiative, are women part of your plan? Be sure to consider ways to include women in existing opportunities, as well as developing opportunities targeted to women. This could look like formal mentorship programs, networking events and support for women preparing to sit for the CPA Exam. To learn about the Society’s DEI eﬀorts, visit masscpas.org/dei
- Have conversations. The best way to ﬁnd out what women on your team need is to have open conversations. In general, space for communication for all staﬀ creates opportunities to shape a positive ﬁrm or organizational culture. These conversations, though sometimes diﬃcult, help you dig deeper into how you can be a better advocate for your team members.
Reprinted with permission from the Indiana CPA Society.