November 1998 Issue

The CPA Manager


By Elizabeth S. Fabi, Karen S. Walton, and Lindsay N. Calkins

Much has been written about the recent evolution of management practices in U.S. businesses. Rather than the autocratic, command and control style so prevalent in the past, today's effective leader is believed to be more empathetic and encouraging; one who promotes the goals of the individual as well as the business. Though numerous factors have undoubtedly contributed to this change, many have cited the increased number of women in management ranks as one of the most significant.

The accounting profession--which has traditionally been characterized by an autocratic, top-down approach--has also experienced a tremendous influx of women into its ranks. While there has been considerable discussion on the glass-ceiling issues resulting from the increased number of women in the profession, little has been written on the potential effects of this demographic change on management style in accounting.

Does the accounting profession continue the traditional, autocratic mode of management? Or, with women now constituting over 50% of accounting graduates, have accountants' approach to management changed? Do women in accounting manage differently than men? We surveyed accounting managers in both public and private practice to try to answer these and other questions.

The survey listed 19 paired managerial characteristics, and the respondents were asked to circle the node along a spectrum between each of the paired characteristics that most accurately reflected their personal management style. The survey was designed to shed light on how accounting managers describe their own management practices, whether these self-reported characteristics represent a change from the traditional, autocratic style, and what factors may account for any observed differences in management style.

Autocratic Style?

The autocratic, command and control form of management has often been described as fiercely competitive and aggressive, generally antisocial, independent-minded, and indifferent to approval or criticism--all stereotypically masculine qualities. Our survey evidence surprisingly suggests that, on average, accounting managers characterize themselves as relatively nurturing and considerate of their subordinates. Though accounting managers described themselves as moderately aggressive and decisive (typically autocratic traits), they also characterized themselves as calm, diplomatic, concerned with their approachability, open to criticism, and willing to supervise based on individual traits. Furthermore, they regard themselves as part of a team, consider their subordinates' sensitivity to criticism, prefer their subordinates to ask questions and provide feedback during the process, are sociable with their subordinates within the work environment, rely on and defend their subordinates' work, and are concerned with the process as well as the results.

Despite the limitations inherent in self-reported behaviors, the evidence here at least suggests a perceived movement in the accounting profession in accordance with business in general. The question is: Is this shift attributable to gender, or merely a product of changing times? In other words, do men and women in accounting manage differently?

Gender Differences?

The results of our survey indicate that there is considerable similarity in the self-reported managerial styles of male and female accounting managers. Women and men rated themselves similarly on 15 of the 19 surveyed managerial characteristics (see Table). Gender differences, however, were evident on four of the management style dimensions. Female accounting managers described themselves as more likely to avoid confrontations, more likely to listen to the opinions of others, and more likely to provide detailed directions and guidance to their subordinates. These results are consistent with prior studies indicating that women often exhibit a more nurturing approach to management. Yet the women also characterized themselves as less likely to encourage a team approach, a result seemingly contrary to earlier studies, which have suggested that female managers have a greater preference for working in teams.

Is it surprising that women and men seem to manage so similarly in accounting? Though there are differing opinions, many experts would answer no. Gary Powell, management professor at the University of Connecticut, in a thorough review of numerous studies of management style, concluded that the similarities in the management style of men and women far outweigh the differences and attributes this to the fact that "managers are a self-selecting population."

Others contend, however, that the lack of observed differences may be the result of women adopting a masculine managerial style in order to succeed in a male-dominated environment. If correct, this theory suggests that managerial style may be a function of the proportion of women to men in an organization.

Does the Proportion of Men Matter?

Previous studies of managerial style have indicated that the proportion of men in a firm may contribute to its management style. Our survey results provide evidence that the managerial style of women may indeed be affected by the proportion of male managers on a few of the surveyed dimensions. In comparing the self-reported management style of female managers in organizations where 70% or more of the accounting managers were male (male-dominated) to women managers in organizations where fewer than 50% of the accounting managers were male (gender-balanced), we found three areas of significant difference. First, women in the male-dominated companies described themselves as less aggressive. While initially surprising, this may reflect what Felice Schwartz, in her keynote address to the American Women's Society of CPAs, refers to as the catch-22 faced by women in accounting: Though aggressiveness may be a necessary trait for success, overly aggressive women are viewed negatively by their male counterparts. If true, women working in a male-dominated environment should find this trade-off especially acute.

In addition, we found that women in gender-balanced organizations described themselves as more likely to provide their subordinates with guidance and direction, and as more open to criticism. These results may indicate that women working with more female colleagues may feel more comfortable adopting a more nurturing management style than their counterparts in male-dominated organizations.

In contrast, we found little evidence that the management style of men is affected by the relative gender proportions in an organization. The reported management styles of male accounting managers were similar across the board on all dimensions except one. Men in companies with more female managers described themselves as more likely to supervise their subordinates based on individual traits, while men in male-dominated environments described themselves as more likely to manage everyone the same.

Does the Type of Firm Matter?

Might the type of firm, public versus private accounting, exert an influence on managerial practice--due to the nature of the work, differences in job security, or other factors? Our survey revealed some interesting differences. For example, male managers in public accounting described themselves as more decisive, less likely to defend a subordinates' work, and more blunt in their method of communication as compared to the men in private accounting firms. Moreover, female managers in public accounting described themselves as less likely to rely on their subordinates' output than did their male counterparts. And, relative to the male managers in either realm, the women in private accounting firms described themselves as more likely to supervise based on individual traits (rather than to supervise everyone the same), to consider a subordinate's sensitivity to criticism, and to listen to others.

Taken together, these differences in the descriptions of management style in public accounting versus industry provide some evidence that management practice in industry may be slightly more nurturing. Why this might be so is unclear. Anecdotal evidence from accounting managers who have worked in both environments indicates that, particularly in the larger public accounting firms, competition and client satisfaction is the driving force. In industry, however, the accounting departments do not face the often intense competition experienced in accounting firms. *


Elizabeth S. Fabi is an accountant with Ernst & Young. Karen S. Walton, PhD, CPA, is an assistant professor and Lindsay N. Calkins, PhD, an associate professor, both at John Carroll University.

James L. Craig, Jr., CPA
The CPA Journal

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