Trends in the Accounting Workforce

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The results of A Decade of Changes in the Accounting Profession: Workforce trends and Human Capital Practices, released in February, indicate that women are increasingly attaining leadership positions in public accounting firms and that both men and women are taking advantage of the alternative career paths offered by an increasing number of firms. The Study was conducted under the aegis of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants' (AICPA's) Work/Life and Women's Initiatives Executive Committee and more than 2,600 CPAs took part in the research.

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The study found that women now account for 19 percent of all firm partners, up from 12 percent a decade ago. The percentage of female partners ranges from 12 percent at larger firms, to 27 percent among the smallest firms. Even more significantly, women partners do not seem to be experiencing barriers to leadership positions, such as director of tax or audit or office managing partner, within their firms. The study also revealed that the percentage of part-time professionals who are female has remained fairly constant, at 75 percent, while the percentage of full-time public accounting professionals has increased to 42 percent, from 36 percent a decade ago.

These findings slightly contradict the statistics of the 2005 Annual Averages and the Monthly Labor Review from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) which found that women outnumbered men in several occupations, including accountants and auditors. The BLS also reports that women account for 50 percent of all workers in high-paying management, professional and related occupations.

One woman, who has witnessed many of these changes, is Bonnie Houldsworth, a principal of Houldsworth, Russo & Company. A profile of Houldsworth by In Business Las Vegas states that the woman-owned firm, which offers traditional accounting services, as well as consulting services, reached $2 million in revenue in 2005 and has a staff of 23.

“I got into accounting because I just loved business, but because I was a female – back in the ‘70's – I needed certification to say I knew what I was doing, something to give me credibility,” Houldsworth told In Business Las Vegas. “So I obtained a CPA and that opened doors for me. My first accounting professor told me he'd never given a woman an A and he wasn't planning on it, and at the end of the semester he gave me an A and told me I'd made him eat his words. I felt like I had to work harder (than my male classmates), but it made me a better accountant.”

The AICPA report also advised women to be more aggressive about seeking out career opportunities and informing their supervisors about their aspirations. Other findings of the report included:

  • Women are gravitating to smaller firms where the trend of their advancement is more pronounced and where they represent 47 percent of the workforce, compared to 40 percent at larger firms.
  • There is a gender gap in the desire for partnership. Among senior mangers, only 41 percent of women, compared to 65 percent of men, expressed a desire to become a partner.
  • Female professionals are less likely to be aware of networking opportunities, leadership development programs and practice development training.
  • Men in the CPA profession are becoming as interested in, and affected by, work/life policies as women. This is part of a larger national trend that is becoming stronger.

Although the Women's Executive Committee was one of the sponsors of the report, not all of the report's findings applied specifically to women. In fact, the need for alternative career paths besides the partnership track, and to perceive work/life effectiveness as a business strategy, apply equally to men and women. The report points out that CPA firms that focus on the personal needs of their professional staff are seeing productivity gains because motivated employees reciprocate by nuturing the firm's valued client base. Even more telling, is that the two reasons most commonly cited by CPAs in business and industry for leaving public accounting, were working conditions and work/life issues.

“I consider it a real plus for the CPA profession that a growing number of firms have policies and programs in place which the flexibility that the young women and men of our profession expect,” Elizabeth Almer, Associate Professor of Accounting and Meadows Faculty Fellow at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon and a member of the Executive Committee said in a prepared statement announcing the study's results. “That 90 percent of women taking maternity leave are returning to work on either a full or part-time basis is an example of the effectiveness of these policies. Clearly, a good work/life policy is good business.”

The full report is available as a PDF document from the AICPA web site. Click the Research tab at to download it.

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