By Tina Vasquez (Los Angeles)
According to Joanne Cleaver, the founder of Wilson-Taylor Associates, there’s a pattern for women in public accounting: they love it, but leave it. There are many theories as to why, but Cleaver, a research project manager and business journalist, has partnered up with the American Society of Women Accountants (ASWA) and the American Woman’s Society of Certified Public Accountants (AWSCPA) for some solid answers. Together, they’ve created the Accounting/MOVE Project, a national survey research effort to measure and advance women at public accounting firms and corporate accounting employers.
MOVE stands for Money (fair pay practices), Opportunity (advancement and leadership development), Vital supports (work/life programs that remove barriers), and Entrepreneurship (operating experience for managing business ownership). According to Cleaver, this study will be the first of its kind. “The key thing is [that] our methodology combines quantitative with qualitative. Nearly all of the other companies that do similar projects just collect self-reported survey results and draw conclusions from that. We go far beyond, which is why we think this will become the most authoritative measurement of women’s progress in accounting,” Cleaver said.
The project is also being co-sponsored by the public accounting firms BDO Seidman and Moss Adams, the latter of which has experienced growing success with their “Forum_W” women’s initiative, which began in 2006 as a way to attract, develop, retain, and advance women at the firm. Moss Adams’ Managing Director of Human Resources, Tammy Young, says that despite her firm’s efforts, they still struggle to understand the underlying causes of the higher attrition rate among women and why the women fail to advance at the same rate as the men.
Barriers for Women in Public Accounting
“One of the biggest challenges women in accounting face is that they typically do not have equal access to leadership development and influential networks within their firms. The accounting industry’s leadership has historically been male and there is a human tendency to network and mentor those that are similar to oneself. Although women make up more than half of the industry’s workforce, this tendency has resulted in fewer women in leadership roles, meaning fewer high-ranking women with whom to network and ultimately a lack of access to leadership opportunity,” Young said.
A lack of successful female role models is an industry-wide challenge. Jacqueline Akerblom, National Managing Partner for Women’s Initiatives and Programs at Grant Thornton, has spent 26 years in public accounting working with countless talented women who more often than not end up leaving the field. “I think the main reason they aren’t retained is because public accounting has an unspoken model of success,” Akerblom said. “This is what it looks like; it’s one size fits all: a white male with a wife who supports him from home and takes care of all the domestic obligations. Women find it difficult—if not impossible—to model ourselves within that framework.”
Grant Thornton intends to participate in the survey, although the company already receives a great deal of feedback from their yearly Voice Your Experience employee survey, which outlines women’s issues within the industry and their women’s initiatives. Akerblom intends to use the information obtained by MOVE to validate and support the internal data she’s already collected.
Since beginning their women’s initiative in 2004, 16 percent of Grant Thornton’s partnership belongs to women and the firm has been named one of Pink Magazine‘s top companies for women, but Akerblom sees no reason for the firm to rest on its laurels. “When women have achieved 50 percent partnership, I’ll consider it a complete success and the women’s initiatives will no longer be necessary. But that won’t happen for a long time. Simply put: if companies don’t figure out how to keep women, their firms won’t grow. Corporate culture needs to celebrate women by increasing awareness of their successes. Men are very good at pounding their chests, women aren’t. There needs to be external recognition and internal development,” Akerblom said.
The Project and Its Challenges
The survey itself is broken down into several categories, with the employer portion, in which employers are asked to define their corporate accounting departments, representing the core of the survey. The second major portion of the survey is designed to collect data related to the number of women in the organizations being surveyed. The demographic questions are tailored for both public accounting firms and also for accounting employers, which are most commonly corporations. The qualitative data collected will center on the survey’s four drivers for women’s workplace success —Money, Opportunity, Vital Support, and Entrepreneurship.
The survey can be accessed from the ASWA and the AWSCA websites. Firms and accounting employers of all sizes are encouraged to participate; it will be open for accounting firms through November 20, 2010 and open for all other employers through January 25, 2010.
Those involved seem confident that the project will provide some of the most comprehensive information and will shed light on why so many women leave the accounting industry despite entering with the same passion, education, and experience as the men. The only challenge getting major accounting firms to know about it and participate.
The results of the survey, scheduled to be released during the spring of 2010, will outline the best accounting firms for women, the best accounting employers for women. And while the survey will be performed on an annual basis, most experts don’t expect the results to be dramatically different from one year to the next. “Change occurs slowly over time,” Young said. “Corporate culture shift will not be a quick process.”