Firms around the country are struggling to recruit and retain experienced professionals to serve their clients. Partners are nearing retirement, and many don’t have clear successors in place to ensure their firms keep running. Given the need for talent, we should leave no stone unturned in our quest to identify our next generation of leaders.

And yet, according to the AICPA 2017 Trends in Supply and Demand report, for the past 20 years women have represented about 50% of new CPAs in the accounting profession, but only account for 23% of partners in CPA firms nationwide. Could this indicate that there is hidden potential talent living in our firms today? Research from a study of Harvard Business School (HBS) graduates might point us in the right direction.

First, the HBS study shows that men’s and women’s values are aligned. For instance, when they asked:

  • Do men and women value the same things in their work life? The answer was yesHBS graduates of either gender were very focused on career-related factors at graduation, mentioning job titles, job levels and professional achievements at similar rates.
  • Do men and women equally value the importance of their career? YesSurvey participants responded similarly when asked about career importance, meaningful and satisfying work, professional accomplishments, and opportunities for career growth and development.
  • Do men and women really value the same things in their personal life? YesBoth men and women cited family happiness, relationships, and balancing life and work as being of importance to their definitions of success.

Next, the HBS survey explored graduates’ actual experiences in the workplace:

  • Leadership responsibilities
    • 81% of men have direct reports / 71% of women
    • 58% of men have P&L responsibility / 45% of women
    • 57% of men have Senior Management positions / 41% of women
  • Reports of high satisfaction levels
    • 59% of men on work that is meaningful / 49% of women
    • 52% of men on professional achievements / 44% of women
    • 50% on opportunities for career growth / 41% of women
    • 58% on compatibility of work and personal life / 50% of women
  • Few HBR female graduates are opting out to care for children(11%).
  • The study found no links connecting temporary time out of the workforce to the fact that women are less likely to be in senior leadership.

Men and women both want fulfilling, forward-progressing careers. They both struggle to balance career with family obligations. But women aren’t finding their way into leadership, as we see in our public accounting firms and in the HBR survey group, too. This brings us to the question that’s on everyone’s mind: What can WE do about the situation? The good news is there are tangible steps firm leadership can take today that will bring women leaders forward.

  1. The first step is to ensure your firm is on top of its game in people development. Are you providing opportunities for all individuals to work on challenging assignments and do meaningful work? See the People Development section of Jennifer Wilson’s blog entitled It’s All About People Again for ideas to get your firm started.
  1. Practice hopeful interpretations when talking about any employees’ hopes and dreams and be sure you’re asking questions instead of making up answers! You’ll see this in recruiting conversations about whether a woman is a risky hire because her career might end after parenthood. You’ll hear partners guessing when she’s going out with the next pregnancy and wondering whether she’s the right candidate for that high-profile project. Don’t be that kind of leader!

This also happens with our male employees. For instance, there may be an employee who can’t be promoted because “his family comes first,” or the manager who is pigeon-holed because “he just doesn’t have what it takes” – whatever that means. Stick to the facts, talk to your people regularly, and be sure your firm isn’t missing out on a great opportunity to invest in “home-growing” your next generation of leadership in the firm. See Tamera Loerzel’s blog entitled Another Possible View for more ideas on interpretations.

  1. Be sure your firm is providing the right “re-entry” opportunities for individuals on career breaks or flexible schedules. Without applying pressure, stay in regular communication with your alumni and flex schedule participants and be sure they know the firm is ready to accommodate their career plans and re-entry to the mainstream if and when they are ready.
  1. Take a look at your firm’s flexibility program offering. Knowing that your staff is interested in career growth even while they shoulder the burden of family responsibilities means firms need to find creative ways to help women and men be successful in the amount of time they have available to contribute. For ideas see our series of blogs on Anytime, Anywhere work.
  1. In recognition of the complexities employees with dependent family members are struggling to manage, consider a backup care program. Such programs provide a safety net for those days when regular child care or elder care arrangements fall through. See for more information.

These five ideas will positively impact nearly every employee in your firm, not just your female staff.

Public accounting firms face a challenging market for recruiting and retaining employees. Shouldn’t we make sure we aren’t discounting our own internal possibilities? Encourage your leadership team to take a hard look at your internal leadership options – especially women you’re afraid to invest in – and challenge yourselves to build your leadership pipeline.

We’d love to hear your suggestions on how firms can support the growth of female leadership, so please share them here.

Best regards,

Renee Moelders

This popular blog from February 2015 was updated and published today because of its relevance to our many readers.