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Why are so few women reaching the accountancy career summit?

27th March 2014

MGI World Why are so few women reaching the accountancy career summit?

Why is it that women are failing to make the leap up to partner level at so many accountancy firms? In the US, for example, women make up half of certified public accountants (CPAs), yet only account for a fifth of partners.

But the problem is far from confined to just American firms. It’s a global issue; one explored recently by Jeanette Franzel, board member of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB).

Speaking at the Eighth Annual Washington Women Speak conference, she said it is hard to accept the idea that the current lack of women as partners and top leaders in accounting firms is due to women not taking charge of developing their skills and pursuing opportunities.

The so-called “leaning-in” argument, she explains, misses the point; if women are to progress the problems that must be dealt with are structural.

“If women and other talented professionals are leaving public accounting because of conditions such as excessive hours, uncontrollable schedules, unwieldy travel schedules, and lack of viable career paths that are compatible with other life activities, then the solutions to these problems need to be structural and organisational,” said Ms Franzel.

But progress will only occur if there is “innovative thinking and changes in how firms have traditionally conducted business and managed their people”.

Her comments come after a number of different reports that paint a picture of a corporate world that is struggling to adapt. While the International Accounting Bulletin revealed most women in the profession are concerned that a career break will hold them back, a more worrying statistic about the broader role of women in the workplace came from PwC. It found that a quarter of millennials - those born between 1980 and 1995 - think that employers favour men for internal promotions.

But Ms Franzel argues accountancy firms are shooting themselves in the foot if they don’t promote more women. “The business case for public accounting firms to invest in and focus on the retention and development of its female leaders is very clear,” she said.

In a general sense, firms that tackle the problem will have the advantage of access to larger talent pools. For accounting firms it goes beyond this, however. “The complexity of auditing - and the vast responsibilities of firms in providing assurance over financial reporting for the benefit of investors and the markets - requires harnessing the talents and energies of a diverse workforce,” argues Ms Franzel.

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