The Best Firms for Women: Building new networks of support

The Best Firms for Women: Building new networks of support

By Danielle Lee

Published on Accounting Today
December 03 2018, 10:01 am EST

The strikingly low number of women in leadership positions remains a problem for the accounting profession, and progress to rectify this inequity has been slow. Only 22 percent of CPA firm partnership is female, according to the “2017 CPA Firm Gender Survey,” conducted by the Women’s Initiatives Executive Committee of the American Institute of CPAs. This imbalance is even more striking when considering that women make up nearly half of accounting graduates, at 48 percent, according to the AICPA.

This partnership percentage marks a slight decline in the two years since the AICPA released its inaugural Gender Survey, in 2015, which found women represented 24 percent of partners in CPA firms. These sobering statistics are oft-cited as the profession grapples with how to retain and advance women, and firms seek help in cultivating women-friendly workplaces.

Accounting Today’s 2018 Best Firms for Women signify a bright spot in the profession, by not only retaining women but helping them flourish (see the list here). These firms share many popular policies, programs, and positive office cultures — attributes that originally landed them on Accounting Today’s 2018 Best Firms to Work For list (unveiled in the November issue) — but they are also vanguards in gender inclusivity. To compile this list, Accounting Today and Best Companies Group drilled deeper into the Best Firms to Work For survey results to factor in percentage of female employees, female response rate to the survey, and the percentage of positive female responses.

As a small but shining group of firms making progress on a long-festering issue, we asked the Best Firms for Women to shed some light on how they are operating women-friendly workplaces, and what the profession can learn from their success.

Functional flexibility

What has become a baseline expectation for employees at all accounting firms is also the most common quality in a Best Firm for Women: flexible work schedules.

This is especially true at the No. 1 Best Firm for Women, San Antonio-based ATKG, where women make up three-quarters of the staff and three of the firm’s five partners.

“One of the things, being 75 percent women overall, is we hardly have anything we’d call women’s initiatives,” explained ATKG managing partner Melanie Kirk. “We try to make the whole firm more flexible.” The benefit is universal, Kirk said, “because, as a profession, our challenge is keeping people in public accounting. All [three of the female partners] worked in big firms, 80 hours a week. [Some people] decide public accounting is terrible, and go to industry, or another career entirely.”

ATKG’s higher percentage of female employees and leaders aligns with industry data, which shows smaller firms have higher percentages of female partners than average. With 42 staff members, ATKG is in the 21-to-99 CPAs category in the AICPA’s breakdown of partners by firm size, included in its 2017 “CPA Firm Gender Survey.” At firms in that cateogry, 26 percent of partners are women, according to the AICPA, rising to 30 percent in the 11-to-20-CPAs category. The percentage is higher still — 42 percent — in firms with two to 10 CPAs.

ATKG’s size presents a challenge in recruiting staff overall, Kirk said, but it has helped in attracting women.

“There’s a huge challenge in not being able to get enough people as a small firm,” Kirk shared. “We targeted women at small firms who had children … We got a reputation as a women-friendly firm from the get-go because we specially targeted those people. We could get that really high caliber of person. Our reputation has gotten to the point of being a very family-friendly, flexible firm.”

Also helping ATKG is a younger staff and partner group — Kirk counts only two or three people over the age of 50. Additionally, the firm benefits from a 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 retirements approaching.

“There is so much potential for an individual making it to partner, the experiences they have working with clients, the impact they can have on the community,” she explained. “If that message is articulated to a younger generation, it will help them see what we continue to do and contribute.”

Paving a path

With women more equitably represented at management levels, the big challenge in the profession is advancing them to partnership roles. And that starts with clearly defining the pathway.

The path was so evident at Berntson Porter, Actor never questioned whether she could be president, a role she assumed in 2017.

“If you look at me, I never thought I can’t be president of this company because I’m a woman, but I can because I’m highly qualified. The opportunity was presented to me and I took it, and I had the support from my male and female counterparts.”

Actor also had a women’s leadership committee at her firm, which has been active the last few years.

“It was started by one of our senior managers, and the intention was to help promote women, to give an avenue for their voices to be heard, to be an advocate for individuals who might not speak up as much,” she explained. “A lot of our initiatives are around making sure the right people are at the right positions. Making sure everyone is given the same amount of opportunity.”

The firm also launched a principal pathway program two years ago, targeting senior managers and directors, and giving them the career-development guidance and tools to advance to the role of principal. More simply, explained human resources director Elizabeth Nombrado, it empowered women to think, “’Hey, there’s a way for me to advance in this career.’”

While ATKG doesn’t have a formalized women’s committee, it provides early career development, according to marketing manager Maria Dunn.

“One of the things that absolutely impressed me about this organization, and it’s not specific to women, is the philosophy and the mentality of the business model. From the second you join the organization — you could be a staff member that’s just come into the firm — you have the opportunity to become part of so many programs, committees, succession planning, from the get-go. [You learn] what it means to be a leader, to delegate, usually things [you learn] further along in your career. You don’t have to wait until a certain point in your career, to learn and empower… to be a leader.”

Fust Charles Chambers similarly believes in firms taking “a proactive approach if you want to retain professionals from the entire talent pool and develop a diverse partner group,” Franco commented. “Offer a variety of programs to assist with improved career/life integration, provide leadership development training, and advocate for future female leaders along with mentoring them,” she advised.

Leaders of the Best Firms for Women also stressed the importance of outside networking events and conferences, where women can connect and share advice with other women in the profession and wider business community. Many firms also provide professional coaching and mentorship programs.

Mentality shifts

While firms can create women’s initiatives and policies, they have to be more than lip service, Kirk explained.

When asked what firms can do to more successfully advance women, she said, “Sadly, it’s really an attitude shift. I hear stories of people that work at firms and have all women-friendly policies and initiatives, but if they take advantage of them, they’re really looked down on. As soon as you have, they’ve written you off from the partner track. It’s not what firms intend, but the attitude of a lot of people. If you have kids, and want to go to a part-time schedule, they write you off, and don’t give you good clients anymore.”

The need for the profession to solve this is urgent, Kirk continued.

“If you look at the demographics out there, it’s not on our side. If we don’t try to figure this out — talk about the profession, how much it’s aging … half of the CPAs in the profession will be retired in the next 10 years. From a numbers standpoint, we don’t have enough people coming up to take those positions. If we are writing [women] off from the partner track because they have kids, or are taking advantage of that kind of schedule — we have to figure this out.”

For her part, Kirk recommends different compensation models or levels of partnership for women who want to advance in their career but need a more reduced work schedule.

Representation at the top

For all the Best Firms for Women, their successes beget more success, as the leaders we spoke with agreed that having women leaders is crucial to bringing up more women to join their ranks.

“As women’s initiatives are implemented and prove to be successful, there will be more female role models and women leaders to demonstrate to those beginning their career the important aspects of professional development such as career/life integration, leadership styles, and business development approaches,” according to Franco.

The number of female leaders is the most obvious way firms measure their success in being a women-friendly workplace, leaders said.

“It’s important to showcase, whether at the entry level or the mid-level, the career path in the company,” said ATKG’s Nombrado. “As women, we grow in a company when we see leaders are also women. We were actually doing interviews for staff-level people, and one of the participants was saying, ‘You know what, I’m so impressed you guys have female partners. Whenever I’m in the interview process with other firms, it’s all men.’ The fact that we have female partners to interview her for this position was impressive to her. I hadn’t given that much thought to it.”

“The overall goal,” Actor added, “is we wouldn’t get that comment.”

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