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3 Tips for Opening the Doors to Future Leaders

Women in the workplace

As we celebrate National Women’s History Month, CPAs can take pride in knowing that women have maintained a solid foothold in the profession since the early 1980s. Not only that, women have represented half of all accounting undergraduate and graduate students since the early 1990s. Men and women share credit for opening the doors of the profession to ensure that all top talent can enter and thrive. However, there is one place where the numbers are still skewed male: at the partner level in CPA firms. One goal of the AICPA Women’s Initiatives Executive Committee is to call attention to this issue and offer solutions to firms and professionals on why and how to drive change.

A 2010 study conducted by the WIEC shows that the overall industry proportion of women at the full equity partner level is 19 percent. The actual percentage falls between 14 percent and 25 percent, depending on the size of the firm. While the passage of time may narrow the gap naturally, there is a business case to expedite moving women into leadership roles.  Firm growth, succession planning, entry into new markets, diversity of thought and innovation are all at risk if firms don’t make the effort to engage all top talent and see that they thrive in this profession. Fostering the leadership attributes and styles of firm talent—female and male—broadens firms’ leadership response patterns, enabling them to manage the complex business landscape more effectively. The collaboration of men and women working together is what will ensure the brightest future. What can firms and individuals do to make this happen?

Here are three tips for making sure the future is open to all:

  1. Provide equal access to sponsorship/advocacy relationships. These relationships differ from mentor relationships and are essential to leadership progression. Sponsor/advocate relationships, however, do not naturally occur for all top talent. To ensure that everyone has access to these relationships, firms must implement:
    • organizational mechanisms such as formal advocacy/sponsorship programs;
    • well defined and published criteria for advancement; and
    • competency models that describe—in behavioral terms—what the organization is looking for at each level for each related competency.
  2. These mechanisms remove ambiguity in the sponsorship/advocacy process and help to reduce unconscious bias present in every organization and within every individual.
  3. Understand that career-life integration is a major priority for talent. Future leaders increasingly live in dual income or single-parent families. As a result of this societal shift, the emerging leaders in organizations live a very different reality than many current leaders, in terms of the integration of work and life. Firms must take this shift into account when building talent-development programs, career paths and succession plans.
  4. Visibly support the development of broader leadership competencies. When an organization’s current leaders demonstrate diverse thinking surrounding issues such as business development, leadership style, career path and career-life integration, they influence future leaders who will come to understand there are many roads to success. There is no single approach that is the “right approach.” Variety is the key to helping emerging leaders find role models to emulate. 

Preparing our firms to capitalize on the future requires conscious thought about what will be needed to meet new challenges and opportunities. Women currently represent a growing majority of staff and managers within CPA firms. It is essential to ensure they remain in the profession and lead alongside their male peers. The contributions of men and women together represent the brightest future for the accounting profession.

To learn about the profession’s recommendations for working toward diversity in future leadership, read the CPA Horizons 2025 report. To understand diversity within the CPA pipeline, read the 2011 Trends in the Supply of Accounting Graduates and Demand for Public Accounting Recruits report.

Mary L. Bennett, MBA, CIA, CEC, Founder, MLBennett Consulting LLC. Mary is the chair of the AICPA Women’s Initiatives Executive Committee. She also serves as a talent development consultant to organizations and CPA firms.

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