Banking, law, medicine and accounting are four professions that have traditionally been dominated by men. The finance industry especially was known for its very old-fashioned and exclusive old boys network mentality. This is why it is interesting to hear that women have been making major inroads in the accounting field. Besides a love of numbers and a high-paying salary, the four big national accounting firms — Pricewaterhouse Coopers, KPMG, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu and Ernst & Young — are vying to create the most female friendly environments to keep women at their companies and they have been doing this for the last decade.
The latest available figures from 2010 show that women make up an increasing proportion of new entrants to the accountancy profession. Globally, women make up almost 50% of the accountancy trainee intake. Over half of members and students of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) are women now. This is a huge jump from 1970 when less than 10% of bachelor’s degrees in accounting were awarded to females but by the mid-1980s, the share exceeded 50%.
With all these young women entering the field employers are, of course, taking into account that many of these women will start families in the next ten years and will have certain needs because of that. Accounting firms, perhaps because they have strong skills when it comes to numbers, have found that it is actually more profitable to try to keep these experienced, female employees by accommodating to their new family roles instead of hiring new people.
Jennifer Allyn, managing director in PricewaterhouseCoopers’ office of diversity, told The New York Timess recently that stepped-up flexibility policies have helped cut turnover to 15% a year, from 24%. Firms estimate that the cost of hiring and training a new employee can be 1.5 times a departing worker’s salary, so reducing turnover by 200 employees could mean $30 million in savings.
“I think that there are a couple of reasons that the Big Four accounting firms have the incentive that they do for women. To begin with I do think that they were trying to attract women to a field that was not necessarily family friendly to begin with and additionally they are trying to retain women who already know the field and might otherwise stop working in order to be at home. However, once one firm provides any sort of incentive the other top firms generally follow suit in order to remain competitive and maintain their rankings [in this category] relative to one another. One of the things that the firms always advertise are their rankings in various publications. So in addition to trying to improve the internal state of affairs for women at the firms they are also trying to maintain rankings in relation to the other firms.”
“This isn’t geared only toward women but the higher you get in the firm there is a very relaxed attitude towards when people work (starting early and ending early versus coming in later and staying later) and whether they work from home – you can keep a schedule suited to your own needs as long as the work is getting done.”
To be fair, technology has in part made it easier for firms to offer flexible schedules that weren’t feasible 30 years ago. CPAs on the partner track typically work 50 to 60 hours a week, and with modern technology they can work around the clock — at a client location, at the office and at home with the kids.
This flexible work mentality is also trickling down to smaller regional accounting firms. “Every woman I interview (for a job at the firm) asks me, ‘What are your women’s programs?’” said Wendy Stevens, one of seven women partners at Weiser, a mid-sized firm that has offices in Edison and in New York.
This is not to say that accounting firms still aren’t behind having a high number or even equal number of women at the partner level (women were 18.1% of all equity partners at Big Four firms) just as it is at law and financial firms, but they are at least going in the right direction. And even if it is partly just to stay high in the rankings it is also because they value these women as employees and want to retain them. If other companies in various industries would just look at the numbers they would also see that offering more flexible schedules benefits men, women and profits. Maybe they should hire an accountant. Preferably a female one.
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