Many question whether a gender issue exists in our profession. I did not expect to encounter this issue as part of the INSIDE Public Accounting/ConvergenceCoaching research study, “The Road to Retention: Motivators and Drivers for Young Public Accounting Professionals.” What I anticipated was generationally-focused feedback highlighting the differences between mature and younger professionals.

Digging into feedback from 723 young professionals, however, brought me face-to-face with some stark gender differences and the worrisome messages they convey. Based on the data, there is a very real gender issue in our profession and it’s one that firm leaders need to pay close attention to if the sustainability and growth of your firm is important to you.

But before we get into our gender findings, let’s first explore some important background details:

  • There are at least as many female college graduates and more young female graduates than young male grads these days. According to Time magazine, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 37.5% of women ages 25-34 hold at least a bachelor’s degree compared to 29.5% of men in the same age group. The number of women with bachelor’s degrees of all ages and majors is now roughly equal to that of men.
  • Women join our profession in nearly equal numbers as men. According to the AICPA, women represent more than 50% of accounting graduates entering the profession over the last 20 years.
  • But women don’t “make it” to leadership at the same rate as their male counterparts. Only 24% of all partners in the U.S. are female, and females represent a paltry 16% of equity partners in firms with more than 100 CPAs (AICPA CPA Firm Gender Survey).

So, the professional talent pool is half female – and is likely to be at least or more than half female going forward. But less than a quarter of those women become CPA firm owners. How come?

The IPA Road to Retention survey provides us with some clues. For instance:

  • Women start out feeling their skills are properly utilized, but this drops off as they progress.
    Men strongly agree that their firm recognizes and makes full use of their skills and this feeling increases with the years of experience, from 39% to 45%. It’s the opposite for women, where the feeling that their firm makes good use of their skills declines as they age, from 47% to 38%.
  • Females become less certain of what it takes to advance with age. Of women aged 21-33, 45% strongly agreed that they know what it takes to advance in their career, but this declined to 34% for women ages 34-40. This murkiness on the path to partner was an issue for men, too.
  • As women progressed, their respect for firm leadership declined. As men progressed in their careers, their respect for firm leadership grew.
  • Fewer women plan to become partner than men. Of female respondents, 32% indicated that they plan to become partner compared with 51% of their male counterparts.

If women felt better utilized and clearer about their path to partner, would they ascend in greater numbers than they have to date?

And what’s causing the declining respect women seem to have for firm leaders as they mature? Isn’t it likely that there’s a correlation between that declining respect and their lower desire to join those leaders at the partner table? 

A few other interesting gender findings shed more light on the gap:

  • For women, the feeling that their workload is reasonable declined as they mature, moving from 39% to 28%, while men’s feelings that their workload is reasonable increased from 35% to 42%.
  • When given the opportunity to share what they find to be the least enjoyable aspect of their work, a whopping 58% of women noted they least enjoy “the hours” they work. Men surveyed felt the same way.
  • When we asked respondents to rank the top factors affecting their willingness to stay in public accounting, women ranked work/life balance and flexibility as their top two “stay” factors.

Worklife Balance

So where do we start? First, we admit there’s a problem. Then, recognize that this problem isn’t only a women’s issue because it has the potential to impact men and women alike by significantly handicapping our profession. If bright young women don’t believe our profession offers them the best opportunity to utilize their skills, win at home and at work and ascend to senior leadership, we simply won’t attract and retain our fair share of this critical talent resource. And, we won’t be able to retain the smart, capable women we’ve been fortunate enough to attract to the profession thus far.

Take steps to encourage open communication in your firm – first at senior leadership and then within your team to better understand the issues that your people feel impact the rise of women leaders. Encourage uncomfortable, raw and honest feedback on what needs to change in your firm – from both women AND men – and then test ideas and pilot programs to address them.

Talent is the new battleground and firms that attract, develop and retain both genders in equal numbers win. When the dust settles, where will your firm end up?