Peer Relationships: Key Factor in Retaining Mid-Career Women

iStock_000002351861XSmallBy Robin Madell (San Francisco)

Last year, the 2012 Accounting MOVE report investigated the role of community service for women in accounting. In the 2013 MOVE Project [PDF], Joanne Cleaver, author of The Career Lattice and the report’s creator, set out to understand why mid-career women in accounting firms either stay the course on the partnership track, or abandon their public accounting ambitions and leave for industry.

Patterns had started to emerge from previous years of research in this area. Cleaver notes that a trend was becoming clear: that women evaporate from the partnership pipeline at the senior manager level. Yet she noted a collective hunch about this “make or break point” was that women actually started to take their feet off the pedal much earlier than senior managers.

“We felt that the decision to stay the course was so complex and important, it deserved a deep dive,” says Cleaver. So in the fall of 2012, she conducted a survey of 440 women at all points in their accounting careers, and interviewed dozens of them to gain additional information about why, when, and how they decoupled their career ambitions from their public accounting firms.

The good news for firms is that women do spend a couple of years at the senior staff and new manager level wondering about the path to partnership. Therefore, Cleaver emphasizes that firm leaders have a generous opportunity to rekindle women’s ambitions to become partners. “You can change their minds!” says Cleaver. “But if you don’t even try, your apparent lack of commitment becomes one more reason why they should leave.”

Glass Silo

A 2012 Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) study [PDF] found that relationships with co-workers are the top relational factor for retention for U.S. employees. Similarly, MOVE found that peer relationships are disproportionately important for women in accounting during the first 7 years of their careers. So for women who are sorting out whether they will push for partnership, their satisfaction is partially shaped by their relationships with co-workers—especially women at the same life stage. This means that feedback gathered from social/peer networks also plays a big role in job satisfaction.

Cleaver refers to this phenomenon as the “glass silo.” “What happens at work does not stay at work,” says Cleaver. “It becomes part of the daily flow of peer sharing. Perceptions of workplace fairness, opportunities to advance, pay equity, work-life balance—all that stuff is shared laterally and through social media networks, and amplifies employees’ perceptions.”

She adds that employers used to have at least a reasonable hope that workplace practices and culture would largely be shared within the company, but not so much outside. “Ten years ago, where would you share that information?” Cleaver asks. “Now, inside employer information is currency for any individual who wants to gain access to salary data, the inside scoop on interview questions, and company micro-news, such as how job descriptions are evolving. Employers live in “glass silos”: their reputations are out of their hands, and everyday decisions and culture, broadcast through social sharing, shape workplace reputation.”

The MOVE research found that for women senior staff, strong peer relationships, strong relationships with clients, and continual advancement in mastery of technical skills were the top factors for job satisfaction for women at CPA firms. But for women managers, the most important factor shifted to work-life balance. Cleaver says this makes sense, as women senior managers are usually in their thirties and either starting families or hoping to.

“I believe that peer relationships are the most under-rated influence for retention in general,” says Cleaver. “When we saw that peer relationships were critical for young women in public accounting, we realized that this converged with Millennials’ context for all peer relationships: tech platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. Peer influence is now instantaneous and viral, thanks to sharing among friends, co-workers, former classmates, and professional networks.”

This phenomenon especially affects retention for Millennials—today’s senior staff—who have the least to lose and the most to gain by ditching a frustrating workplace and following the lead of friends who abandoned accounting. “You don’t have to wonder how a former co-worker is doing,” says Cleaver. “You know, every day, how her job is working out on her Facebook feed, and you know from her LinkedIn update that she just won a cool new assignment you wish you had.”

Power Up

The MOVE report found that the satisfaction factors shift as women begin to gain power and prestige. “We found that as women in accounting gained more control over their schedules and relationships, they gained more work-life balance,” explains Cleaver. “Plateauing at partner, women had a completely different set of factors that determined their professional satisfaction.”

A study published in the journal Psychological Science validated these findings. Researcher Yona Kifer of Tel Aviv University found that powerful employees were 26% more satisfied with their jobs than their powerless colleagues. This dovetailed with MOVE interviews, which revealed that women at the senior staff and manager level literally can’t envision how they can possibly manage being partner because they don’t have insight into what a partner’s life is like. “From the point of view of a senior staffer or manager, they believe they will continue doing lots of technical work, plus now they’ve got a household to run, and they’d like to have kids and they know that somehow, partners bring in business, which must involve a lot of time-intensive networking,” explains Cleaver.

Yet these worries may be at least in part unfounded. Cleaver emphasizes that the reality is that women partners have earned a new balance of responsibilities and resources. They can afford to outsource some household responsibilities, and as they become adept at winning business, they know how to hook one big fish at a time instead of scrambling to cast a wide net. “Women partners like their jobs,” says Cleaver. “They’ve carved out a good groove. But women a decade behind them don’t have access to observe how that high-level realignment makes for a different balance.”