More Accountants Are Women, but Few Find Room at the Top

MORE and more women are joining the ranks of accountants. But the number of women promoted to partner isn't adding up.

Since the mid-1980s, roughly one-half of accounting graduates and entry-level hires at public accounting firms have been women.

Yet last year, only 13 percent of the partners in these firms were women. And in the largest companies, women make up only 5 percent of the partners, according to a study to be released later this month entitled, ``The Accounting Profession in Transition.''

The issue of women's advancement is not unique to public accounting. And the high attrition rate of women is common in other professions as well.

The most tempting explanation for high turnover is that many women leave to have families, which leaves fewer in the upper ranks to promote. But that's only a small part of what's happening. And with women projected to account for 60 percent of new hires in 2000, public accounting firms see this becoming a serious bottom-line issue.

``The reason that the accounting industry has been awakened to this issue is because ... [firms] suddenly have this large pool of women that they're educating and they're training and they're helping become CPAs, and those women are leaving,'' says Marcia Kropf, a researcher at Catalyst, a New York-based nonprofit research group focusing on women in business.

Take Kimberlee Perras. After more than two years of all-nighters and grinding back-to-back seven-day workweeks at Price Waterhouse LLP, the sixth largest accounting firm, Ms. Perras left to do the same job at Fidelity Management, which ensured a more regular schedule.

``I left purely for the hours involved,'' she says.

Perras exemplifies just one of the reasons why women quit accounting firms. They leave for more family-friendly environments, for flexible work options in the industrial sector or in other financial service organizations. And some are starting their own practices.

But most are not dropping out of the work force. Of the women who leave to have children, 89 percent return to their firms, according to a 1994 study by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) in New York, which surveyed 5,300 accounting firms nationwide.

Indeed, the female turnover in accounting firms at lower ranks is only slightly higher than that of males (19 percent for women, 18 percent for men), according to the AICPA study. But by the time employees reach senior management positions - the rank below partner - only 21 percent are female and 79 percent are male.

Meanwhile, the percentage of women being promoted to partner is relatively consistent with the pool of women to select from. Twenty-six percent of partners admitted within the last three years are women, the AICPA study reports.

``To me, that indicates that if you can get through the tough years, in the middle ranks, there's not a glass ceiling at the partnership-admission level,'' says Karen Hooks, chairwoman of the AICPA's Executive Committee for Women and Family Issues.

The challenge for public accounting firms is to retain women in the middle ranks. Increasingly, public accounting firms, in particular the six largest, are beginning to introduce flexible work policies, part-time employment, holiday and summer hours, and work-at-home options. (See chart.) A few firms even offer partners flexible work options, something not available before.

``There was a lot of this attitude that [women were] going to hang around for a few years, meet their Prince Charming, get married, and never come back,'' AICPA Chairman Robert Israeloff says. ``It took a number of years to overcome that, and I think we have.'' Mr. Israeloff says he believes that flexibility is the key to retaining more women. ``I don't think it's fair to have someone with a child come back and work the same way,'' he says.

In some cases, flexible work programs have existed for years but only now are becoming accepted within the profession. ``We as a firm have always had flexible work arrangements on paper,'' says Elizabeth Rader, a 10-year partner at Deloitte & Touche LLP, the nation's fourth-largest public accounting firm. ``When people expressed an interest in them, the typical reaction was, `Why would you want to do a thing like that? You have such promise at the firm.' ''

For the past year, Ms. Rader - the mother of a two-year-old and a three-year-old - has been one of five partners on reduced workload schedules, two of whom are men. She now works about 75 percent of her full-time schedule, which equals roughly 35 hours a week. But Rader contends that instituting flexible work options is not enough to reduce turnover among women. She puts a higher premium on career advancement opportunities and workplace attitudes.

In January 1992, Deloitte & Touche instituted one of the most comprehensive programs among the Big Six accounting firms to retain women. The firm has put its entire management group through a two-day seminar on gender issues. It is encouraging mentoring for women. And it is looking at how assignments are handed out and whether men are favored over women.

Even those who have rallied through the ranks contend that the industry's culture needs to be addressed. ``I don't feel like [there is] an overt problem on the part of the partners not being able to accept women,'' says Donella Rapier, senior manager at Price Waterhouse, in Boston.

But ``the powers that be still tend to look at people who look like them, act like them, and, since most of them are men, they look to the younger men [because] it's easier for them to relate to them on a social basis,'' she says.

Though the industry has made progress, Ms. Rapier and others say they don't expect major changes soon. ``I just think it will be fewer women in the upper ranks than men for a long, long, long time, and that there will be more women in the medium important areas,'' she says.

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