New research indicates that while women may be gaining numbers in entry-level positions at accounting firms, they are woefully behind at the executive level.
Three researchers from Bentley University, the University of Colorado, and Northeastern University found that the Big Four accounting firms all tout having more than 40 percent female employees.
But in studying the impact of a new Public Company Accounting Oversight Board rule that requires accounting firms to disclose the name of the partner in charge of each public company audit, the researchers discovered that only 19 percent of audit partners at the Big Four firms are women.
Yet, the difference between Big Four firms and other accounting firms was slight: only 15 percent of non-Big Four firms have women audit partners.
Drill down even further and, interestingly, the number of women audit firm leaders differs according to the politics at play in their states. In largely Republican states, 14 percent of audit partners are women. In states that are primarily Democratic, 20 percent of audit partners are women.
The study also revealed that women audit partners usually are more common in major metropolitan areas. For example, 32 percent of the 50 audit partners at Minneapolis-area firms are women, while 22.5 percent of the 151 audit partners in Boston are women. In New York City, they number 21.7 percent of the 267 audit partners.
However, San Jose, CA, has only 9.7 percent women audit partners out of 62. Female audit partners also are less common in the Washington, DC area (10.9 percent), Atlanta (11.6 percent), and Philadelphia (12.2 percent).
The business case for gender diversity in advanced positions is noteworthy.
“Research suggests that female audit partners are more careful, patient, diligent, and conservative, which are highly valued traits in the auditing profession,” the study states.
And there are signs of progress. In 2015, Deloitte named Cathy Engelbert as the firm’s first female CEO. A year later, PwC’s audit partner class was 30 percent female.
“These actions signal a desire to reach gender equality at the highest levels of the organization,” the study states. “But, much like the rest of corporate America, our research shows there is a long way to go.”
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.