"If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair."

- Shirley Chisholm, U.S. Congresswoman

We celebrate Women’s History Month in March to acknowledge all the achievements and contributions of women past and present. It is especially important to recognize the role of women in accounting and identify ways to capitalize on their contributions in light of the talent shortage and shrinking pipeline.

But first, let’s review Women’s History highlights and some of the “wins” in equality for women over the last century:

  • Women’s Day was celebrated by a group of Manhattan socialists and suffragists on the one-year anniversary of the garment strike on February 28, 1909
  • International Women’s Day was declared by a German activist, Clara Zetkin, at an International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen on March 8, 1910
  • The 19th Amendment passed giving women the right to vote in 1920
  • The Voting Rights Act passed into law to overcome legal barriers in states that prevented African Americans, including women, from exercising their right to vote by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965
  • The Equal Rights Amendment was passed in the Senate on March 22, 1972
  • The Equal Credit Opportunity Act prohibited discrimination against credit applicants based on gender in 1974
  • A weeklong celebration of women organized by the Sonoma, CA school district to bolster support for Title IX, which prohibited discrimination due to sex in federally funded education programs, was held in 1978
  • National Women’s History Week was declared by President Jimmy Carter to be the week of March 8 in 1980
  • The National Women’s History Project successfully petitioned Congress to expand the event to the entire month of March in 1987, which we recognize as Women’s History Month today

Even with all this progress, there is still more to go. And we are at risk with some recent legislation reversing rights of women in their reproductive health, voting access, and more. One might ask, why does it take an act of Congress, literally, to ensure equal enjoyment of all rights by women? A more impactful question may be, “What can I do to ensure equality and elevation of women in my organization and community?”

Let’s look at actions you and firm leaders can take to increase the capacity and contributions of women to help firms grow, be role models to team members, and appeal to women-led clients. Here are five places to assess potential actions:

  1. Identify female mentors – There are fewer female partners, and even fewer who are raising children as a partner, so strong female role models in accounting are scarce. Identifying good mentors to help women navigate developing their skills, progressing their career, and juggling other personal and professional commitments is key.

Possible Actions: Identify mentors that can advocate for their mentees by uncovering opportunities to participate in new client experiences, networking, or other initiatives. Coach male mentors to be inclusive and recognize and set aside any bias they may have. Sometimes, male counterparts operate from their unconscious bias and invite young men to after-hours events, conferences, or even lunch meetings, unintentionally, leaving women with less exposure and experiential opportunities. Provide opportunities for women team members to seek mentors outside your firm by attending conferences in the profession and participating in external leadership programs.

  1. Assess promotion practices– Both conscious and unconscious bias can affect a firm’s culture or a particular manager’s mentoring or promotion practices. Studies have shown certain adjectives used to describe expectations for a candidate can indicate a preference for male or female. “For example, the use of the words “pleasant” or “sensitive” tend to signal a female gender preference, and the words “dominant,” “achievement-oriented” or “ambitious” can signal a male gender preference,” according to Kathy Caprino, Senior Contributor for Forbes. And yet a 2022 study by MIT Sloan has “found that on average, women received higher performance ratings than male employees, but received 8.3% lower ratings for potential than men. The result was that female employees on average were 14% less likely to be promoted than their male colleagues.”

Possible Actions: One way to remove biases in promotions is by creating clear performance-based metrics to measure both performance and potential that allow you to apply across your team members with as much consistency as possible. Also, consider providing bias learning opportunities to managers on an on-going basis. Remove gender-biased questions or conversations that can occur about women “being in child-bearing years,” “needing to address daycare issues,” or “balancing their career with their husband’s career” that are not raised when considering male team members.

  1. Close the pay gap – According to the S. Department of Labor, “Overall, women are paid less than men. On average, women working full-time, year-round are paid 84% of what men are paid.” And this gap is even greater for Black and Hispanic women. We’ve also seen significant increases in compensation over the last several years, however, with a cumulative inflation rate of 16.9% from 2021-2024 according to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics pay increases have not always kept up.

Possible Actions: Evaluate your pay strategy and ensure you are paying at-market or above. Apply current compensation metrics to existing team members including applying raises mid-year. Then, assess your pay by role, including partners, and by gender to determine how women compare to men, with an additional step of evaluating women especially underrepresented minorities. . You may also need to evaluate your rewards systems, as women often take on administrative roles or talent development roles with lower compensation than other roles like client service; however, everyone benefits from these administrative and talent functions that are crucial to serving clients.

  1. Increase female partners and owners - Over 52% of accounting degree completions are women according to the AICPA Trends Report; however, only “39% of the partnership positions in accounting/finance functions at CPA firms, up from 23% two years earlier,” according to an article in the Journal of Accountancy. And the percentage is even lower for underrepresented minority women.

Possible Actions: In addition to mentors, assign a sponsor to women leaders on the partner track. A sponsor is willing to put their name on the line to advocate for the elevation and promotion of the individual they are sponsoring. They also help increase the visibility of the individual, identify experiential opportunities for her, and speak for her at the partner table. According to Harvard Business Review, “…women tend to be over-mentored and under-sponsored” resulting in less access to the executive team with fewer senior mentors for women and reduced access to participation in key strategic initiatives.  

  1. Truly embrace flex and remote – The profession has made strides in recent years to accommodate flexible and remote work practices, but we often hear from participants in our leadership programs that it is more lip service than actual practice or it “depends” based on which partner you work for. Promote the idea that Winning at Work Requires Winning at Home and this requires max flexibility for all team members.

Possible Actions: Create career paths for individuals who are part-time, remote, or hybrid-workers and minimize the limitations of how far they can progress. Measure results based on deliverables and results versus time. Identify outliers in the partner group who are not supporting or progressing individuals with alternative work schedules, holding them accountable for a consistent approach to your policies and core values.

Despite progress in recent years, gender disparities still exist within the accounting profession, particularly at the leadership level. Women's History Month reminds us to close the gap on these inequalities. Evaluate your firm’s practices to ensure they promote gender equity, including pay equity and transparency, flexible work arrangements, mentors and advocacy, and unbiased promotion processes.