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Not Enough Women in Accounting, Industry Leaders Lament

Nov. 16, 2018, 1:20 PM

The accounting profession has a lot more work to do to improve gender parity among partners even though women run three of the largest networks in the country, the industry association’s leader said.

Barry Melancon, CEO of the American Institute of CPAs, said the appointment of women to run KPMG LLP, Ernst & Young LLP, and Deloitte LLP demonstrates success when just a decade ago just one firm in the largest 25 was led by a woman.

“It doesn’t mean that we have finished the journey,” Melancon said. “We are really focused on succession in the leadership ranks.”

There is a business and economic imperative for firms to increase the number of women leaders as well as the diversity of their accounting staffs, he said in remarks at the AICPA’s Women’s Global Leadership Summit.

The pending retirement of millions of Baby Boomers could leave firms short on staff with the right skills to replace those partners, but women would help fill that gap. Having women at the table can help firms better serve their clients and add value that would make a firm more attractive for a merger or acquisition.

Percentage Going the Wrong Way

The percentage of women partners has ticked backwards below the 23 percent peak in 2009, according to AICPA data, despite years of work to retain and promote women in the industry by the firms and the association alike. In 1992, 12 percent of partners were women.

“Those statistics hurt us,” and the dearth of women partners affects the profession’s ability to recruit and retain women, Melancon said.

The number of women entering the profession has also dropped in recent years.

Melancon believes that social media may play a role in the dip. Young women are better informed about the rigors of the career, hearing directly from peers what it’s like to work in the industry, where most young accountants start at large global network firms.

“You do work hard in our profession, particularly early on,” he told Bloomberg Tax.

The longer-term success women can achieve if they stick with the profession gets lost in that perception about the work-life balance of accounting, he said.

Still, AICPA data show that a sizable number of women plateau at the director or non-equity partner position, a step below equity partner.

Technology Immersion Key

For women hoping to make the leap to partner, KPMG LLP’s leader had some advice: Dig into emerging technologies like blockchain and be willing to take risks.

“I think this openness to really digging in in new emerging areas like blockchain and other emerging technologies are really going to be beneficial for women, and men, as they think about what are those skills that are going to make the best partners of the future,” CEO Lynne Doughtie told Bloomberg Tax.

In remarks to the 700 women gathered for the conference, Doughtie encouraged women to be open to jobs that stretch and build their careers and skills.

Taking risks throughout her career—such as taking a job or leadership role she didn’t feel ready for— helped her to reach the corner office, she said.

Sponsors Needed

“You can’t just wait for it to happen,” Doughtie said. She encouraged women to talk about their goals, and to be deliberate about what jobs and assignments they want.

Sponsors—managers or other leaders who can advocate for and mentor women—are key to any women’s career ascension, Doughtie said.

“We need to have people talking about us when we’re not in the room,” said Jacquelyn Tracy, who chairs the AICPA Women’s Initiatives Executive Committee.

And at many firms, those likely sponsors will be men. The committee is working to reach out to male leaders to ensure they understand the economic benefits women executives bring to the table and to encourage them to make the deliberate choice to help create future leaders for their firm, Tracy said.

“We need to make sure we’re involving the other 50 percent of the population,” she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Amanda Iacone in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: S. Ali Sartipzadeh at