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Louise Single

The Advancement of Female Professionals

New survey shows one in four women now own their CPA business.

February 16, 2012
by Louise Single, CPA, PhD

Data from the 2011 AICPA Trends in the Supply of Accounting Graduates and Demand for Accounting Recruits Survey (Supply and Demand survey) and the 2010 AICPA WIEC Benchmarking Survey of Firms survey find stark contrasts in the patterns of female advancement in public accounting.

The WIEC survey data represents AICPA member firms that indicated at least five member professionals on their staffs, and the responses were analyzed by firm size in terms of revenue. The data reported here reflects the responses of 192 firms. The Supply and Demand survey represents the responses of 348 firms.

The WIEC survey asked firms to indicate the total number of professionals at each level of the firm broken down by gender. Figure 1 shows the proportion of female professionals at each level.

At the junior levels, females make up the majority of professionals in the two smaller size categories, and just below 50 percent in the largest size category. The female majority is maintained up through the manager level. However, parity begins to break down at the senior manager level where females represent 41 percent of the professional staff in the largest firms. At the levels above senior manager, females make up less than a quarter (21 percent or fewer) of the total professional staff. The proportion of females at the full equity partner level is 21 percent for the largest firms, 14 percent for the middle range and 25 percent for the smallest firms in the group.

The 2011 Supply and Demand Survey results show a similar pattern. Of the newly graduating accounting recruits, 50 percent are female and 40 percent of all CPAs employed are female. Yet, at the partner level the numbers are much smaller. For firms with 10 or more CPA staff members, 17 percent of partners are female. For the smaller firms with fewer than 10 CPA staff members, 22 percent of partners are female.

Female ownership of firms is also related to size. In the larger firm category (firms with 10 CPA staff members to 49 CPA staff members), seven percent are female owned. In the group of firms with fewer than 10 CPA staff members, 23 percent are female owned.

The data in Figure 1 indicates a steady decline in the proportion of professionals who are female in the largest firm size category and the decline is most pronounced after thesenior manager level. Where do these women go? The survey results suggest that many are remaining in public accounting, but moving to smaller firms. Figure 2 shows the WIEC survey data on the proportion of females hired in or promoted to each professional level within the past three years. At larger firms, however, there is a shift to a majority of males beginning at the senior/manager levels. Viewed in conjunction with the data in Figure 1, this suggests a drift of female professionals from larger firms to smaller firms.

Turnover Rates

Turnover rates are very low at all firms and for all positions, which may have been due to general economic conditions during the three year period leading up to the WIEC survey. Female turnover equals or exceeds that of males at the bottom three professional ranks for all firms, consistent with the overall proportion of females at these levels. At the higher ranks, female turnover is equal to or lower than that of males with the exception of the director position in the largest size category in which three out of four (75 percent) of the turnover was by females during the three years leading up to the survey. The results indicate that in almost all categories of higher levels that women may stay more predictably than men, suggesting that if women are successful and find a situation that hits all of the criteria that are important to them they will stay with a firm at the highest levels and be harder to lure away. The lowest levels of female turnover are observed in the largest firms. It appears that these firms are retaining more females at the top levels suggesting that they are doing a good job at retention of talented female professionals, but this is not translating into overall advancement.

Across the board, firms have adopted policies aimed at improving retention. The WIEC survey asked firms to indicate which employee policies or programs they offer. Those that are most commonly in place are flex-time hours (reported by up to 83 percent of respondents), part-time hours (86 percent), flexible spending accounts (67 percent), work-at-home options (67 percent) and special holiday hours (58 percent).

Four open-ended questions were included in the survey to further explore policies at firms that may be targeted to female professionals. A number of firms stated that they intentionally did not create policies with different levels of treatment based on gender. Of those who did have special initiatives aimed at female advancement, many cited succession planning and other business issues as concerns that motivated their firms to adopt special programs. Typically 25 percent to 30 percent of respondents cited specific policies targeted at their female professionals and, of these, half were of a flex-time/part-time nature.

The responses to the open ended questions, taken as a whole, suggest that firms see many challenges to retaining their top talent. Although flexibility in work hours seems to be the most common practice aimed at advancement, the ability to provide adequate flexibility is still perceived by some as a challenge. Given the results reported for the proportion of female professionals at each level in both the WIEC and Supply and Demand surveys, it appears that flexibility in work hours is not helping women advance to the most senior professional levels across the board. Perhaps one reason for this is the fact that there appears to be very few programs aimed at helping female professionals develop the skill set to reach the top levels of firm management. A handful of firms mentioned initiatives such as “how to build a women’s network” or leadership and management skills training aimed specifically at women, or mentoring. However, the number of firms who stated that they do not differentiate between genders or target females specifically indicates that many do not understand the implications of the widespread cultural biases that unintentionally influence their professionals, and that may be undermining their sustainability.

View complete reports of the results of the WIEC here. AICPA members can find the results of the Supply and Demand survey on the AICPA website.

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Louise Single, CPA, PhD, is an associate professor and accounting programs director at Austin, Texas-based St. Edward's University. She has published extensively in the area of women's advancement in public accounting and is the Research Task Force chair for the AICPA Women's Initiatives Executive Committee.