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Women and Leadership: The Path Not Yet Taken

Business-womenWhat are the consequences if organizations aren’t making the most of up to half of their potential talent?  Unfortunately, that’s the case in many firms, according to recent AICPA trends data, which found that the percentage of women in leadership positions in the profession has actually dropped from 23% in 2010 to 19% today. As you can imagine, this trend was a hot topic of conversation at the AICPA Women’s Global Leadership Summit, which was held in Washington D.C. in October. Those who attended the Summit found those statistics particularly troubling because among those present were a number of very talented and vibrant women. If firms and companies are not working to create opportunities for talented women to live up to their full potential, then these organizations are missing out on a lot.

In fact, according to the Committee for Economic Development, in order “for American business to succeed economically and command the public’s trust, it must better incorporate more women on boards and other leadership positions.”  In its report, “Women Matter 2012: Making the Breakthrough,” McKinsey & Company noted that “our research has shown a link between the proportion of women on executive committees and corporate performance.” At the Summit, BBC World News America Washington correspondent Katty Kay emphasized the increase in productivity and efficiency that can be expected when companies measure output rather than input. Kay, the co-author of Womenomics: Work Less, Achieve More, Live Better, also discussed “pink profits,” or the revenue boost enjoyed by companies that employ senior women.

The benefits of gender diversity on corporate boards, for example, include enhanced corporate performance and shareholder value; greater customer and employee satisfaction; improved shareholder confidence; and stronger market reputation, according to the International Finance Corporation, which is part of the World Bank Group.

Women who have not been involved in boards may try various methods to be selected for one. A Summit panel that included three female former AICPA chairs advised that interaction with boards in a CFO or similar role can lead to a seat at the table. In addition, seeking opportunities to network with existing board members can help women to assess their current skills against the boards’ needs and work to strengthen their competencies as necessary. Networking can also make it possible to learn more about the company and make it easier to open a dialogue about potential board membership, according to the panelists.

Negotiating for greater responsibility or opportunities—such as a board position—is a critical skill for women. Practicing negotiations out loud beforehand can help women gain confidence in their talking points and anticipate the questions they may be asked, according to Summit speaker Cynthia Schneider. She also advised picking negotiation battles carefully so that women devote their energy to goals that are attainable.  If women come to the negotiation assured of their self-worth and prepared to present themselves as the leaders they aspire to be, they’ll have a greater chance of reaching the positions they seek.

The decline in female leaders in the profession should inspire women and their potential employers to take the steps necessary to ensure that one-half of the talent pool has the chance to make a full contribution. Women should remember that there’s clearly a tremendous need for the skills that talented female professionals can offer a firm or company. Employers should keep in mind that gender diversity can provide a wide range of benefits that will drive performance and expand their businesses’ horizons. In either case, don’t miss out on the opportunities that arise when women take on leadership positions.

If you’re interested in making your voice heard and asserting yourself  in your professional, volunteer or personal life, I encourage you to review this free, informative and entertaining  archived webcast, How to Say Anything to Anyone by Shari Harley, MA and Certified Speaking Professional.  Sheri recently presented the program on behalf of the AICPA’s Women’s Initiatives Executive Committee.

Shannon M. Stith, CPA, CGMA. Shannon is the Champions Task Force co-chair of the AICPA Women’s Initiatives Executive Committee. 

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