The gender scale of the workforce that makes up the accounting profession has officially tipped in favor of women; more than half of all accountants are women (53%). What has not yet tipped in women’s favor are the statistics around women holding leadership positions.
Despite an ever-increasing number of women in the global workplace, women hold a mere 10% of executive / leadership positions (Stroope and Hagemann, 2013). Out of Fortune 500 companies, only 3% are currently led by women.
As a means of gathering insight into women leadership for the accounting profession, I interviewed a group of leading female accounting professionals from various sized-CPA firms, at different points in their careers, from various geographic locations. Here is their point of view on the perceptions around women leaders in accounting.
Assumptions about Ambitions & Abilities
Unfortunate assumptions are sometimes made about women’s ambitions and abilities. Research by DDI (Development Dimensions International, 2009) shows that women do not excel sufficiently in their career due to assumptions on women’s ambitions, such as women having less ambition and commitment at work due to family responsibilities. A whitepaper commissioned by the Commonwealth Secretariat entitled, “Gender Differences in Leadership Styles and the Impact within Current Boards” alludes to a perceived “double burden” faced by women. The Double Burden refers to the fact that women remain traditionally tasked with responsibilities around care-giving at home in addition to the workplace. The report illustrates that “Women are improving their professional opportunities, yet are still responsible for the majority of the chores and care giving duties, also known as the double burden syndrome.” (author Gita Patel, FCA, June 2013).
Marie Brilmyer, CPA, M.Acc., director of assurance services at SS&G, Inc. in Akron, Ohio agrees. “There is a stigma that comes with pregnancy and maternity leave. Immediately, you’re asked, ‘Are you coming back to work full-time?’ Often, the perception is that flexible work arrangements or part-time schedules mean you have halted your career advancement.”
Lisa Matuszny, a partner at Hobe & Lucas, suspects that perceptions when female candidates are interviewed. “I think there is an underlying assumption that, depending on what they say during the interview – if they are getting engaged or married – that they are going to have a family and, therefore, might not be as dedicated to their career. “
There seems to be a general consensus that there are two times when women might need more flexible schedules to care for family members: when they have young children at home and if they have aging or ill parents to care for at some point in their life. In either scenario, the work will be achieved differently during a specific timeframe and a flexible work-life fit is needed. Mothers prefer to leave the office promptly at the end of the work day in order to collect and care for children; in many cases, women choose to complete their work remotely, after putting children to bed.
Donna Urian, CPA MST, a shareholder at Fischer Cunnane & Associates, Ltd. Says, “Personally, I do not see it as lack of ambition, but rather having a well-thought out strategy of what women want and when they want it.” Marie Brilmyer advises, “Figure out what works best for you, be comfortable with it, and communicate it to your supervisors and coworkers. Most importantly, however, be flexible in both your professional and personal lives.”
Cool, Cool Confidence
In addition to perceptions about women’s ambition and abilities is a common problem related to women’s confidence, reflected by both women’s beliefs in their own abilities as well as their ability to communicate their confidence to others – including men and other women. A recent study showed that the majority of men consider themselves more capable than their female counterparts while the majority of their female counterparts considered themselves to be equally as capable (Eagle, 2003). I asked, “How do you think women professionals fare at demonstrating their confidence when it comes to performance and ability?”
Lesley Mast, CPA, Macc-Taxation, a principal at Rea & Associates, addressed the issue. “I think demonstrating confidence is something that does not come naturally to most women. It is more a trait that is learned by watching good leaders, both male and female. It is a delicate balance though, in exuding confidence. You risk being viewed negatively by both sides.” Donna Urian agrees, “I think women question themselves and self-evaluate more often than their male counter parts. “
Since the current “game” being played is run by males, I asked these leading female accounting professionals to share their take on how to get around this confidence gap between men and women. “My attitude about it has always been to do what is right, regardless of how people view you. Sometimes it is worth taking those risks” said Lesley Mast. Donna Urian added that communication is a key to addressing this problem. “I do believe when women share these thoughts and concerns with others, the feedback can be very valuable and a catalyst for growth.”
Real Differences Between Men & Women
Perhaps the differences between the genders can be best understood by looking at how their brains function. The male brain has more connections within each of the spheres (left and right) while females demonstrate more connections across/between the spheres of the brain. In the book, Inside her Pretty Little Head (Cunningham / Roberts, 2012) it was suggested that while men take action, women take care. This may be explained by realizing that different portions of the brain of each gender are activated while the brain is at rest. Men’s brains demonstrate more activity in the reptilian portion of the brain while at rest, which regulates action and is most associated with the “flight or fight” response. Women’s brains show more activity in their limbic system, which controls feelings and emotions (Gur, Gunning – Dixon, Bilker, & Gur, 2002).
It may have been the best-selling book, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus which can be credited with bringing so many of these gender-based issues into general conversation around the workplace. Since its publication twenty years ago (April 2002) there have been great strides in acknowledging, understanding and bridging the gap between how men and women work, communicate and excel in a corporate environment.
Pushpita Kotikalapudi, a CPA and senior manager at CohnReznick, LLP is tasked with managing a collaborative advocacy network for women at her office in Bethesda, Maryland. The firm-wide program, entitled WomenCan was initiated to focus on career development for women at the firm. “Women are a key component of our firm and the program connects our women to share best practices, providing much needed insight from successful female partners. It has opened up discussion at many levels on various issues to promote our women and provide them the resources needed to succeed.”
Bridging the Gender Gap
The good news for women leaders is that research proves there is little difference when it comes to performance and success for women vs. men leaders. Some highlights from the study entitled “Women Work: The Business Benefits of Closing the Gender Cap (Global Leadership Forecast 2011; Boatman, Wellins, Neal, M.A) include:
- Organizations with more women leaders rated their leadership higher, compared to organizations in any other group
- Organizations with a higher percentage of women in leadership positions more frequently reported their financial performance as better than the competition
- Organizations that have more effective talent management practices had a higher percentage of women at all levels, but particularly at the executive level
Other factors that may assist to close the gap between how men and women will lead in the future include technology, open communication about gender differences, acceptance of these differences and an overall heightened sense of awareness about options and flexibility in the workforce.
“Because of technology and the younger generation’s perceptions about work/life balance, I predict we will soon be open to more possibilities as we watch many of the older perceptions about how work gets done fade away,” Lisa Matuszny observes. Lesley Mast says, “I think both genders can flourish … based on their experiences and preferences.” Donna Urian adds, “We need to continue discussions so that men are aware and recognize that women have different leadership styles. It will enhance communications between all parties involved.”
Recommendations from Women Leaders about Future Leadership in Accounting
I closed my interview by asking these female leaders for their top recommendations for women professionals to help bridge the gender gap in the accounting profession. Their suggestions, ranked by priority are:
#1. Women should acquire skills to become more confident and more assertive
#2. Women (and men) should become more aware of communication rituals (to obtain a clearer sense of better communication, generally-speaking, in the workplace)
#3. Find women mentors
#4. Invest in women’s technical competence