Can Your Firm Benefit from Gender Bias Training?

I have been coaching CPA professionals for many years and it became very clear from the start that the conversations I was having with female and male professionals were quite different — and those conversations among males and females were, ironically, very similar.

I understood these differences to be the cause of what many refer to as “the gender gap,” but for these issues to be resolved, there would have to be a conversation that would include — and engage — both male and female professionals.

Thankfully, this realization seemed to hit both myself and my target audience at the same time as, over the past year, I have been bombarded with requests to conduct gender bias workshops for CPAs. These requests stemmed from an observation around a lack of female leadership at their organizations, frustration over a lack of understanding from male professionals about how to most effectively manage female professionals, and from women professionals who were confused as to why they were not being promoted.

What was the most surprising thing they learned during the gender bias training? Amanda Pontow, a shareholder at Bland & Associates, is currently the only female partner of six at the firm. What most surprised her was learning about the differences between the male and female brain. “I didn’t know that women’s brain activity moves so rapidly between the two hemispheres of the brain,” she said. “It’s interesting because I have adapted to be much more logical and much less emotional in the past few years, especially since I have become a partner at the firm with a group that is entirely male. I feel like I may have been trying to suppress one side of my brain to adapt.”

Jason Tonjes is a male shareholder at the same firm, which conducted gender bias training for its professionals through a webinar earlier this year. “I have primarily viewed gender bias as someone having bias toward a member of the opposite sex when, in fact, it happens with people of the same sex often, as well,” he said. “I realize I need to be more careful as to how I may be more likely to dismiss (or to take more seriously) negative comments made by males or females about each other.”

Margaret Valentin, a senior tax manager at PSV & Co., a CPA firm that is a member of the BKR International accounting association, attended a gender bias workshop at BKR International’s American Regional Conference in 2018. Valentin was intrigued by one of the more popular points of contention during the discussion — tears from female professionals in the office.

“I usually associated women crying in business scenarios with an emotional response or frustration,” she said. “Seeing it as an anger response gives it a slightly different perspective. Frustration and anger are not the same, but one usually follows the other, and I can see how tears might result as an accumulation of many things that are not necessarily the reason or item that brings about the tearful reaction. Although this is not a common situation in my office, it does happen occasionally. It still has me thinking as to how we can work around that and reduce that level of anger.”

What was the one thing that “hit home” for them or their firm’s situation? One issue that was discussed during the presentation was the concept of a “Motherhood Penalty,” a label given to those women professionals who seem to take a step back in their career during the years they care for young children. “I know it may look like our firm is still male-dominated at the very top shareholder level, but we have more women directors than men,” said Pontow. “It hit me that women are moving up into leadership positions at a slower pace. I realize now the importance of determining the rules for part-time employees, including the position of part-time partner. We don’t want to deter our future female stars continuing to rise to the top.”

Participants in the training sessions watched several videos that depicted gender bias and illustrated some of the concepts that were being learned and examined. One video that left a strong impression on the participants was a recorded experiment that had two toddlers switch clothing (the boy put on a dress and the girl wore a blue shirt and pants). Volunteers were asked to engage in play with the children. Overwhelmingly, the boys were given toys such as robots and blocks and were more often handled, while the girls were given plush toys, spoken to more gently and more coddled overall.

“I have a son and a daughter,” said Valentin. “And although I always tell her that she can be and do whatever she wants, I also try to get her to explore her feminine side. This is a very difficult line to balance. When I grew up, my parents stressed the importance of getting a good education and learning to be independent. But it takes some balance to understand that this does not mean that we can’t be feminine. Also, while we are trying to empower girls so much, I’m not sure we are giving the boys the same approach! I am still working on this one.”

“The video about the toys that were offered to both boys and girls got me thinking about how nurture and nature both influence — conflict or synergize — in those settings,” Tonjes added.

How are firms addressing dysfunction around gender bias? Tonjes wondered if, when looking at employee productivity, it would be useful to initially share the information without names associated. “Just sharing the position of the person would be an interesting experiment to try to void any hidden bias,” he said. “It might wind up being the norm for us.”

Pontow was excited to use the gender bias workshop as a kickoff to the rejuvenation of Bland & Associate’s women’s initiative. “Being aware of and overcoming gender bias can help us in working more effectively with the opposite gender,” she said. “I’m proud to say that our male leadership are very supportive of the initiative.”

Valentin added, “More than gender bias, I think that looking at some of these gender differences can help me to assist some key management personnel to achieve a better working relationship with staff that they have conflicts with.”

In most cases, approximately one-third of the professionals attending these gender bias workshops are male, and the internal dialogue continues after the workshop. It is clear to me that these conversations are inevitable, but when they occur with care and thought, they can support a path to resolving and avoiding the gender-based issues that so many firms are facing in today’s corporate environment.

Here are some facts to leave you with:

    • Female accountants and financial professionals in the U.S. are still only making around $0.79 on the dollar.
    • Women working as accountants or auditors earned a weekly median salary of $1,018, compared to the weekly median salary of $1,441 earned by men in the same fields in 2016.
CPA firm partners by gender
  • Recent statistics show that close to 90 percent of Fortune 500 corporate CFOs are men, and this ratio hasn’t changed for many years.
  • In the U.S., even though women make up more than half of all accounting employees, only 21 percent of partners are women.
  • Women’s earnings drop significantly after having a child, while men’s do not.
  • Despite making up 50 percent of accounting graduates and 45 percent of all accounting employees, the number of women who have reached the partner level in Big Four and midsized accounting firms remains comparatively low at only 15 percent.

Reprinted from Accounting Today – September 2018

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