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Gender balance at work

Recent research has confirmed what many have long suspected – that retaining and promoting women already working in accountancy firms, rather than recruitment, is the most effective way of improving gender balance in the workforce.

Boston Consulting Group (BCG) surveyed chief executives, human resource officers and employees about their policy and perspectives on diversity, and the obstacles they have faced. Although all were from FTSE 100 companies, gender imbalance in the sector is a worldwide issue, and the findings provide insight for all. 

BCG partner Claire Tracey feels that ‘companies could create a step-change in gender diversity over the coming years … if all the energy currently engaged can be harnessed and directed into interventions that truly work’.

At least two Praxity alliance firms are already harnessing that energy to develop more effective interventions and are optimistic about the future for their firms and the profession.  BKD and Plante Moran showcased their activity during International Accountancy Bulletin’s month-long celebration of Women’s Day 2017.

What’s the problem?

There’s a principle in supporting people from diverse backgrounds – it’s the right thing to do. But practical business drivers are also becoming more widely recognised.  Diversity and inclusion fuel innovation, increase business performance and attract top talent.  Within accounting, when you recruit, retain and advance diverse individuals, the profession is more reflective of the clients and the communities it serves.

Plante Moran partner Kellie Becker talks of two starkly contrasting realities. 

1.For the last 25 years, more than 50 percent of accounting graduates have been women, but the percentage of female partners at accounting firms is typically less than 20 percent.  

2.The past year saw female CEOs named at two of the largest accounting firms in the United States. 

‘Not only are these women role models for the young people in their respective firms, they’re an inspiration for all of us in the profession.  We cheer the progress being made by women leaders and welcome the lessons we can learn from their stories of success. However, to ensure sustained progress we have to stay focused on the reasons women’s career progress is stalled to the point where they drop off or decide to leave the profession altogether.’  

Although women hold a significantly larger proportion of first level manager roles in accounting (50%) than they do in industry (32%), they only hold the same proportion of middle management roles as they do in other industries (35%).

The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) believes the progress of women within the profession is a business imperative, tied to organisational sustainability: 

• demographics in the profession are changing – baby boomers will be retiring in significant numbers during the next 10 years

• growth is at risk if a significant portion of the profession is not maximising its potential

• diverse talent helps address the increased complexity of business

• demographics in the marketplace are shifting – increases in female business owners and decision makers mean proposals require more diverse teams

• firms’ inability to create family- and gender-friendly environments is known to be detrimental to the retention of both staff and clients.

Stereotyping and unconscious or systemic bias in a business culture largely designed by and dominated by men can have unintended consequences for women, and perpetuate a status quo that favours male workers. But this doesn’t explain everything.

Kellie Becker is clear there are numerous reasons for the alarming lack of women in the partner ranks at professional service firms. Many haven’t made developing women leaders a priority by offering training, mentoring, or work-life support. On the other hand, some women ‘self-select’. As Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has written, some choose not to ‘lean in’ – rather than ask for the support they need or push for developmental opportunities, they leave.

What can be done about it?

A vast majority of the employees surveyed by BCG – about 97 percent – believed their organisations were committed to gender diversity. Two-thirds believed that progress had been made at all levels in recent years, and employees were aware of, on average, 10 different gender diversity initiatives being undertaken at their firms.  But only just over a quarter of women felt they had directly benefited from their company’s gender diversity programme – the least effective interventions made no difference to career trajectories. 

BKD Managing Partner Wendy Henry is clear that while there was no overt discrimination at the firm – and it was hiring women and men in equal numbers – women weren’t being promoted to partner at the same rate. The firm was growing, the partner group was ageing and it couldn’t continue losing would-be leaders at an accelerated rate.  ‘We were losing talented professionals, and it was hurting our firm. Our research showed the average career duration for women at BKD was six and half years – two years shorter than their male counterparts. The assumed explanation was women were leaving public accounting for less demanding careers or to stay at home’. 

A Deloitte & Touche LLP study from 2003 made them think again. More than 70 percent of high-potential women who’d left the firm were still employed full-time, while another 20 percent worked part time at another firm. Less than 10 percent were at home with small children. Even these eventually intended to return to work full-time.

Female employees surveyed by BCG said retention and advancement were the most important obstacles to tackle – more than half felt that flexibility was the most important intervention regardless of age, gender and whether or not they had children. 

According to BCG, the policies that can most improve the gender balance are:

• making flexible working truly effective

• better visibility of role models

• involving men in gender diversity efforts, particularly middle managers

• backing up the programme with clear targets.

It’s little surprise that BKD’s and Plante Moran’s initiatives have these at their heart.

BKD’s SKY strategy focused on engaging leaders and management, addressing overall culture and increasing the visibility and development of individual women.  Initially focusing on retaining and developing women leaders, SKY also aims to identify and remove those cultural barriers that prevent staff, regardless of gender, from maximising their potential.

Wendy Henry ‘knew we had to enlist our firm leaders as SKY allies and educate them from the beginning if we wanted to create an inclusive culture’.  From the outset SKY enjoyed the support of CEO Ted Dickman, who launched it, was inaugural chair and remains active on the SKY Advisory Council.

‘Perhaps most importantly, organisations must enlist both women and men to work together as allies in changing the organisational norms and structures that perpetuate gender gaps’ she explained.  ‘We’ve also used firmwide resources, publications and events to educate BKDers on gender and inclusion – videos, career advice, tips from role models, CPE sessions and office-level discussions where participants can freely discuss their ideas, fears, concerns and opportunities.’

We can see you – increasing visibility and development of individuals

Five years ago, Plante Moran developed a Women in Leadership initiative to deliver best-in-class attraction, retention, development and advancement of women leaders. Training for female staff also acknowledged there’s no one-size-fits-all path to success, and encouraged them to make their careers their own.  

‘We’ve focused on increasing the visibility of women leaders in the firm, internally and externally.  And identified targeted developmental career opportunities to retain and advance women leaders, and developed customised career and life integration strategies that complemented the successful work-life programmes that we’d been implementing for years’, explained Kellie Becker 

SKY Sponsor-Protégé Program showcases women role models and a formal mentoring programme pairs high-potential female staff with male and female partners, who often work in different disciplines at the firm. These provide objective perspectives to emerging female leaders as they prepare for new opportunities. 

And it’s working. In 2016, four of the 13 new partners at Plante Moran were women and from July, two members of the seven-member firm management team will be women.  These promotions have also opened doors for others at the firm, with women filling five of seven new leadership roles.

Kellie Becker’s pleased about progress and optimistic about the future. ‘We’ve started the journey. We see consistent shifts on our firm’s culture regarding gender and inclusion, and we’re already experiencing success from our decision to actively help women and men reach their fullest potential.’ 

‘Companies who have made real progress in gender diversity have successfully used targets and metrics to achieve results,’ said BCG’s Claire Tracey, ‘taking care not to simply add ‘diversity’ to the long list of complicated measures used to assess performance.’ 

Kellie Becker considers it ‘heartening’ to see the number of professional accounting firms that are working so hard to address this issue. Each year Plante Moran participates in the MOVE project, which evaluates the progress being made by financial and accounting firms. Joanne Cleaver, who’s president of Wilson-Taylor Associates and designs and manages the annual MOVE project, has noted that ‘progress is accelerating at MOVE firms’. 

Wendy Henry thinks the future is bright for both BKD and accountancy firms around the globe. ‘The SKY is the limit for our people and for this profession.’