How Women Can Climb the Ranks in the Accounting Profession
The accounting and finance profession is dealing with several demographic changes. Older male accountants, who have comprised a large portion of the business, are retiring. Younger accountants with different work-life attitudes are entering the field. And there is a big push to attract more women who can be groomed for senior-level positions.
In an interview with AccountingWEB, Ericka Harney, executive director of the Accounting & Financial Women’s Alliance (AFWA) and The Foundation of AFWA, offered her perspective on how women can progress in the accounting and finance profession.
AW: Much has been written about the underrepresentation of women in accounting and finance. What key factors are responsible for that?
Ericka Harney: What is interesting is that more women than men are graduating with accounting and finance degrees into a field that is still largely male-dominated. I think women are well-represented in accounting and finance as a whole, but not at the partner, C-suite, and executive levels.
Several things have led to that lack of representation:
1. Women are less likely to ask for promotions or raises. We generally feel that it’s poor form or too aggressive to ask for more money or a promotion to executive levels.
2. Women network differently than men. Inherent to being female is seeing others as competition, whether you do this consciously or subconsciously, and it is something women have to make an effort to correct. When you are supportive of other women, it only stands to benefit everyone involved.
3. Women are held to a higher standard. We always have something to prove – another behavior inherent to being female. We still struggle to be seen and treated as equals, so women go further in trying to prove they are equal. This, when you think about it, is exhausting! So, try as we might, there is still a lot to change in this realm, and not just in the accounting and finance industries.
AW: What’s most needed to increase the numbers of women in the field?
Harney: Clearly, education is not the problem, nor is expertise and skill. What is needed most from my perspective is a change by employers to narrow the gap between women and men. Hiring and promotions in the industry must be based on qualifications to meet the needs of the job. Women also should not be penalized for taking time off for families, though they often are. In addition to this tall order of employers, women need to support other women, first and foremost. This will provide the support needed to keep more women in the field and moving up the ranks.
AW: Has that been tried, and if so, what’s kept that from working so far?
Harney: Many firms and companies have offered a women’s diversity program or women’s development program that focuses on leadership. While some of these programs have benefited women, I think they also indicate that women are not promoted as often as men. Therefore, the company feels it has to further develop them before they are promoted. Often, the programs are not based on needs and do not have set objectives or goals, so they may or may not make any measurable difference.
AW: For women just graduating, what are the three most effective strategies they can use to land a job?
Harney: There are so many things women coming into the field should do, but here are my three favorites:
1. Be creative. Employers are looking for this more than before. Be able to explain situations where you found a solution to a problem that was not the go-to solution.
2. Be savvy. Women in the industry can’t afford to only focus on the technical skills of the job. Those on the job hunt need to remember that people and soft skills, and the ability to communicate well and empathize with clients, are just as important. Always be developing these skills and show a potential employer that you’re not only a great asset to them for your technical skills, but also keeping clients happy.
3. Be prepared. Anticipate the questions you will be asked, have examples ready to share, and know how to do well in behavior-based interviews. Actually do research on the position and the firm, and have specific questions ready for them at the end.
AW: For women already established at a firm, what can they do if they feel they aren’t progressing quickly enough or far enough?
Harney: For those already in their career, whether it is in the early or midpoint stage, there are a few things they can do.
1. Keep networking. Attend professional membership association meetings and build a solid network. If you aren’t progressing in the firm you’re at now, there may be opportunity at another firm. Knowing individuals at competing firms keeps you one connection closer if they are looking to hire.
Networking is a job in itself and has to be treated that way. So, send occasional emails and have coffee or drinks with solid connections every few months. Offer your expertise or help where you can. They will remember you when they need someone.
2. Keep growing. Never stop learning! This may be an investment in yourself if your employer won’t pay for it, but it is well worth your time and effort when you get the right learning opportunities. This doesn’t mean that everyone should go back to school or earn a credential, but for some it might. For others, it may be a class here or there or a workshop. There are lots of low-cost and free courses available online. I love Ed2Go and Skillshare for this.
This also means reading frequently. Keep up-to-date about the industry and general business practices. Either download podcasts to listen to in the car or read a book a month.
3. Find a sponsor. This concept was affirmed as necessary for women to move up and progress through the work of the Accounting MOVE Project that AFWA participates in. Executive sponsors use their influence and network to help you get into a position or assignment that you want. The Accounting MOVE report provides ways for firms to develop such a program.
AW: What do millennial women bring to accounting and finance compared to women of older generations?
Harney: The first thing that comes to mind about the incoming millennial professionals is their expectations of employers. Millennial women are looking for and expect flexibility to do the job right and well. This will mean jobs have to be impactful, offer flexible work hours and settings, and use technology more for communication. And when a position does not offer them the balance they need, they will find another job elsewhere.
While this may be considered a negative aspect of the millennial professional or label her as “entitled,” it’s going to force companies and firms to change, as they will not be able to keep talent and be the tipping point for change. This, in turn, may offer older generations a perspective on work-life balance that they have not been able to experience before because companies have not kept up with that demand.
Terry Sheridan is an award-winning journalist who has covered real estate, mortgage finance, health care, insurance, personal finance, and accounting and taxation issues for newspapers, magazines, and websites. A Chicago native and former South Florida resident, she now lives in New England.