Women to CPA Firms: I Quit!

Last Updated Jun 14, 2010 5:18 PM EDT

I'm no number cruncher, but even I can see that something's out of line here:
  • Women earn 51 percent of accounting undergrad degrees
  • Women are 51 percent of employees at public accounting firms
  • Women are 17.4 percent of accounting firm partners
Organizations like Catalyst and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants have long lamented that women aren't making partner. They've trotted out the predictable bromides: flexible work schedules, more mentoring, and more female role models. But none of that actually targets the crux of the problem: At what point, exactly, do women quit? Why do they leave? And what can firms and women do about it? Recently, the two associations for women in accounting -- the American Society of Women Accountants and the American Women's Society of CPA's -- teamed up with my research firm to find out. We released the first Accounting MOVE Report on April 15 (for a little tax-accountant humor). Our top-line recommendation: With one program, firms can retain women to partnership and immediately gain clients and revenue.

Really? More money now and more women in the long run?

Yes. Here's how: concentrate business development training at the level where women are most likely to quit. For most firms, that's at the senior-manager level -- the step right before partner. Our study of 20 firms found that women are 50 percent of all managers but 40 percent of senior managers. At firms with directors, women accounted for 33 percent. And from there, it was a dizzying drop to 17.4 percent of partners. (By the way, that 17.4 percent is in line with previous research.)

Here's what we found at that crucial senior level: Women promoted to senior manager suddenly realize that to make that final big step to partner, they must bring in clients. But guess what? They didn't get into accounting to be salespeople -- at least, that's what dozens of women told us. But partners must make rain. And senior managers must learn to seed the clouds. This is such an unsettling prospect to many female senior managers that they'd rather defect to the corporate world where, they believe, they won't be under the gun to bring in business.

Three years ago New Jersey CPA firm Rothstein Kass realized that this was a killer dynamic. Now RK has a constellation of training tools for senior women poised for partnership. "Rainmakers Roundtable" first coaches each woman to articulate her own approach to drawing in new clients. When you hear yourself say it, you own it. Then, the program alternates between three sales-skills workshops and three networking events. Each networking event puts into play the newly learned skills. By the last event, the RK women are networking with senior women at law firms and investment firms.

RK principal Rosalie Mandel has been the poster girl for many of the firm's initiatives to advance women. A decade ago, when she had her first child she forged a part-time, principal-track schedule. It worked out so well that the managing partners asked her to lead the firm's innovations in work-life and advancing women. She was named principal partly on her successes in those arenas.

Mandel says that because intense career advancement typically overlaps with intense family responsibilities, it's incumbent on firms to clear the internal path so that rising women can tackle career-derailing issues. "Men have that natural camaraderie," she says. "You see that the men who golf with the big guys get pulled forward a little faster. Women don't have that. Who has time? You come in to work, and you work hard so you can get home."

The Rainmakers Roundtable helps make up for time spent at school plays rather than after-dinner drinks. Women learn exactly how to ask for a high-level referral. They forge alliances with similarly situated women in law and investment banking firms, with the shared goal of recruiting new clients together, for all. They polish their personal elevator pitches.

Partly due to the Roundtable, fully half of Rothstein Kass directors are women. That should translate to a healthy lift in women partners -- now an unimpressive 10 percent -- with the next round of promotions.

New clients = more revenue. Rainmaking women = qualified potential partners. And that's how to move the numbers at accounting firms.

What parallel dilemmas challenge women in your industry? Could the Rainmakers Roundtable be adapted to the particular challenges facing upper-middle management women in your company?