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Retaining women CPAs; firms can benefit through programs that help keep talented female professionals.

Will CPA firms be able to hold on to top talent in the future? The answer may depend to a large extent on their success in retaining women CPAS. In the last 20 years, women have entered higher paying, traditionally male dominated professions in increasing numbers. But in no field has the increase in females, and the challenges resulting from it, been more profound than in the accounting profession. In 1977, 28% of all graduating accounting students were female, while today, roughly 50% of all new accountants are women.

In a profession with a relatively high turnover rate, human resources are an important asset. CPA firms that fail to respond to the needs of thE! increasing number of women CPAs could well find themselves at a competitive disadvantage in the future. Although attracting female CPAs isn't currently a problem for firms, it could become one if talented young women perceive firms as failing to retain and promote females. This article reports on a survey on professional staff conducted last year by the American Institute of CPAs management of an accounting practice committee that examined the effect women have had on the profession. (To obtain a copy of Management of an Accounting Practice Committee Survey on Professional Staff, call (212) 5756438.) It also describes programs and approaches taken by firms that have made a concerted effort to promote female CPAS and why they've succeeded.


The survey found that firms definitely have been changed by the influx of women into the profession: 46% of firms in 1990 had an increase in the proportion of female professionals over five years earlier. How do these new accountants fare after they join a firm? Two-thirds of the managing partners questioned by the MAP committee said men and women were equally interested in professional upward mobility. However, according to the American Woman's Society of CPAs, fewer than 20% of all managerial positions in accounting firms are held by women, even though almost 40% of all women CPAs have been in the field for at least 10 years.

Women may face subtle roadblocks preventing advancement or may be forced to put their careers on hold while their children are young because of the difficulty of juggling a demanding professional life and parenthood. Whatever the cause, the result often is higher turnover as women look elsewhere for better opportunities or more flexible schedules.

Many men in top management positions recognize they're in danger of losing talented women but don't know what to do about it. Brenda Acken, former chairperson of the AICPA upward mobility of women committee, which provided input for the MAP committee survey, reports that an increasing number of managing partners have begun asking what other firms are doing to retain female professional staff.


Although firms may be concerned about losing female professionals, few have formal programs for retaining them. An overwhelming majority of managing partners told the MAP committee their firms had made no formal efforts to deal with management issues relating to female staff, issues such as alternative alternative career paths and childcare. But the lack of such programs clearly affects female staff members: When the committee asked staff members if they believed they could attain partnership and be a parent, 81% of men said yes but only 41% of women believed they could do both.

The firms that have created programs for women believe doing so is a sound business decision. "Public accounting is a game of finding and keeping top talent. Half of that talent happens to be female. If we can keep these top people, we're at a competitive advantage," according to Bill Bufe, the partner in charge of personnel at Plante & Moran, in Southfield, Michigan. Bufe says that in 1986, partners at his firm decided to conduct a staff needs assessment. "Employees were asked, What would make it easier for you to continue to work at Plante & Moran?' " Bufe reports. The firm has since implemented a number of changes, some of which are

* Wide-ranging alternative schedules, based on individual needs as well as firm requirements.

* Free Saturday daycare at the firm's headquarters during tax season. "This has worked out better than we ever imagined," says Bufe.

* A formal buddy system to provide mentors to all employees, including special buddies assigned to those who plan to take parental leave. The buddy, a woman who has already taken parental leave, helps the CPA identify potential problems and opportunities. She explains the firm's leave policy, discusses part-time scheduling and other options and offers support throughout the pregnancy.

* Periodic brown-bag lunches at which employees are encouraged to discuss problems that arise in the office and to propose solutions.

* Invitations to staff members on leaves of absence to take part in professional development seminars. "That way, they can keep their skills current. Also, it lets them know we want them to come back when they're ready," Bufe explains.

Has the firm benefited by putting these measures into effect? "Our main goal is to serve our clients. If we have low turnover and high morale, we have a happier team. That means we have happier clients. And that means better bottom-line results," answers Bufe. In addition, the firm has received a lot of positive publicity. "Our daycare program was written up in local newspapers. And we were proud to be honored by the state of Michigan for being among the companies judged most responsive to the needs of a changing work force. "

Turnover troubles solved. At Crowe, Chizek & Co., a firm with eight offices in Indiana, Illinois, Ohio and Michigan, "about five to seven years ago, we realized that women were leaving at a rate twice that of men," says managing partner Ronald S. Cohen. The firm took a step that only 2% of other firms have taken, according to the MAP committee survey: "We set up a committee to look at the problem and to suggest possible solutions," Cohen reports.

Out of those meetings came a commitment to flexible scheduling. The firm also began holding sessions at which women could discuss problems they faced. "We said, Level with us. What can we do to make things better?' "

The turnover rate for women is now the same as that for men. Although the firm has no women partners, Cohen says, "there's no doubt that as women move into senior management at this firm, there will be female partners."

Creative scheduling. Lynn Lazzaro, the first female partner and the person in charge of recruiting at Baltimore-based Walpert, Smullian & Blumenthal, credits a well-developed formal mentoring program and the firm's commitment to total flexibility as the keys to its success in keeping top people.

"For the past eight years, we've had lots of creative scheduling, all based on individual needs," she says. As it does at most firms, choosing a part-time schedule temporarily takes a person off the partnership track but doesn't eliminate either pay raises or promotions. "One of our best people came here as a tax preparer. She had kids, took maternity leave and came back part-time. We promoted her to chief financial officer. Now she's working full-time again. But she's a perfect example of one of the many talented people we've kept because of creative scheduling, people we certainly would have lost otherwise."


The first step in a program to retain female professionals is a stated firm commitment to supporting employees and to seeking solutions to the problems they face. If employees aren't assured firm management really believes in the program, there's a good chance they'll be reluctant to participate. The MAP committee survey found that although a majority of staff respondents favored a choice of part-time hours or sabbaticals for parents in exchange for a slower path to partnership, they would hesitate to take advantage of such arrangements themselves.

As a next step, a written survey allows people to express their opinions without fear of embarrassment or reprisal. The results should be publicized and used as the basis for meetings at which employees are encouraged to discuss issues important to them.

Here are some of the programs firms have established and how they've worked:

* Flexible schedules. Ground rules for successful programs are

1. Almost any schedule can be accommodated as long as it fits the needs of the individual and the firm.

2. Clients must be served, even if it means staff members make themselves available at home or in an emergency.

3. Everyone pitches in during tax season or other busy times.

4. Pay is prorated for part-time workers and partial or full benefits are offered to anyone who works more than a certain number of hours.

Firms may want to consider awarding merit pay increases as well as promotions to part-time professionals to demonstrate the firm's commitment to their advancement, even if partnership is delayed.

* Work at home. Plante & Moran maintains a pool of computers for people to use at home. Lorraine Monheiser of Monheiser, Rapparlie & Company of Littleton, Colorado, says work is easy to monitor.

* Daycare. Childcare options range from running on- or near-site facilities to offering childcare referral services. Ernst & Young in New York City joined with six other businesses to provide emergency at-home care for employees when children are sick or when normal childcare arrangements fall through. Care is provided by licensed healthcare agencies contracted by Child Care, Inc., an outside coordinator. The Women's Bureau of the U.S. Labor Department has a Work and Family Clearinghouse with information on a wide variety of issues relating to improving work and home life. Daycare is only one of them. Called CHOICES, the service operates Monday through Friday, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., EST. The toll-free number to call for information is (800) 827-5335.

* Guidelines on how to advance within the firm and on what is required to become a partner. Walpert, Smullian & Blumenthal includes this information in its mentoring program. Buddies who have been with the firm for at least three to five years help less experienced professional staff members define their career paths, review their goals and monitor their progress. They also offer advice on how to develop a good client mix and get adequate training.

Mortenson & Associates, a Cranford, New Jersey, firm, offers formal counseling on becoming a partner. ThE,, counseling begins as soon as someone is promoted to manager," says partner Linda O'Donnell.

n Mentor systems. Women in management positions can be asked to serve as role models for younger women. Deloitte & Touche audit partner Cheryl Wenzinger says management must make it clear staff members should ask for help when they need it.

* Delayed partnership tracks for women whose parental responsibilities may keep them from putting in the hours necessary to advance on a traditional career path.

* Nonpartnership tracks for those who may not be willing or able to do whatever is necessary to become a partner. Brenda Acken warns that firms must recognize that setting up alternative tracks may not be easy. "Most women feel that being placed on a nonpartnership track brands them as second-class citizens or that it prevents them from seeking partnership at a later time," she explains.

Cheryl Wenzinger agrees, adding that Deloitte & Touche is working to devise an alternative track that will be well respected. "We want an option for people who don't care to go out at night to work on practice development. We want to offer them an attractive financial opportunity, perhaps one that includes a contract and some job security."

* Encouraging women to participate in all firm functions, including office meetings and lunches or other gatherings with present or potential clients. Firms also should support and encourage women's participation in civic and professional organizations and associations.

PREPARING FOR THE FUTURE Some of the measures taken by these firms require planning and time. "Our commitment to training and mentoring is significant, both in terms of nonchargeable hours and out-of-pocket expenses," Plante & Moran's Bufe says. "But if we can retain employees for additional years, or bring people up who eventually become partners, then that time and money have been very well invested."

Other programs require no more than goodwill. Ronald Cohen of Crowe, Chizek is realistic about his firm's attempts to introduce positive changes. "We haven't come up with any magic solutions," he admits. "But we have shown both men and women at our firm that we are sensitive to these problems and concerned about these issues."

Many firm leaders believe the changes to the profession made by talented women have only begun. "More women will make it to partner, by traditional and eventually by nontraditional means," says Bufe. "Our challenge is to say that although seniority has impact, tenure is not the key issue. What's important is a person's contribution to the firm." n
COPYRIGHT 1991 American Institute of CPA's
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Alter, JoAnne
Publication:Journal of Accountancy
Date:May 1, 1991
Previous Article:Coming full circle in practice management; progressive CPA firms are really returning to the profession's roots.
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