April 2002

Accounting rocks!

By Priscilla A. Burnaby, PhD, CPA, professor of accountancy, Bentley College, Waltham, Mass.

After twenty-six years of teaching accounting at Bentley College, I am convinced I have the best job in the world. I get to talk about the wonders of accounting, conduct research in any area of the field that interests me, and serve several professional organizations advancing the profession. My class mottoes are “Accounting rocks,” and “Accounting makes the world go round.”

How did an 18-year-old girl select a career in accounting, back in the 1960s when there were very few women in the profession? Simple: I had to put a major on my University of Massachusetts entrance form.

Here is what I knew: I knew I wanted to earn a lot of money so I would not have to worry about making ends meet. I knew I was good at math, but I also knew I did not want to be a high school math teacher, even though teaching was what many women were drawn to in those days. Reading the Boston Globe’s employment pages, I noticed lots of high-paying jobs for accountants. I did not have a clue as to what accountants did, but it sounded like something to do with math. I checked off “accounting” for my major and didn’t think much more about it.

At freshman orientation, my faculty advisor turned out to be the most fascinating person I had ever met: Dr. Ula Motekat, one of the handful of women with a PhD in accounting at the time. My college years were golden years. The accounting faculty could not have been more generous and helpful. But Dr. Motekat told me bluntly that in order to succeed I had to be first in my class—I was entering a man’s profession and I had to be twice as good as any man to get ahead. I did not understand what she was talking about until after graduation, when I started interviewing.

Affirmative action was at its height when I graduated. My class had only two other female accounting majors. One was engaged and the other was a hippie. Neither of them received any interview offers from the big firms. I received job interviews with six of the then–Big Eight. I accepted a position with Lybrand Ross Brothers & Montgomery, and there I encountered my first taste of being a woman in a man’s field. There was only one female manager and two female seniors. Some clients thought I was a Kelly Girl, some had to be asked if they minded a woman auditor on the job, and some of them would not let me go into the warehouse to take inventory. Of the 50 staff auditors starting with me, only three were female. One of them, Susan Hass, has been a friend ever since.

I had a great three years auditing all over New England. I worked with intelligent people who helped me learn and grow as an accountant and as a person. But even though I thought I was doing a good job, I didn’t think I had a great chance of a successful career in public accounting. To have time to think about what to do next, I decided to return to school for my master’s. The same week I left to go back to the University of Massachusetts, Susan left to pursue her master’s at Harvard.

To pay for my tuition, I became a teaching assistant for introductory accounting and auditing. After overcoming the fear of standing in front of a group, I found I really enjoyed teaching. It made me feel alive and gave me a chance to preach about my favorite topic. When I graduated, I received job offers from the GAO, Coopers & Lybrand, and Bentley College—which offered me more money, plus summers off. (I have yet to take a summer off, but I plan to do that soon.)

Bentley was in the proccess of seeking accreditation from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), so I took a leave of absence to go to Texas A&M and earn my PhD. The accounting faculty there taught me an appreciation for research and writing, and I am forever grateful for the warmth and care they provided to this Yankee.

Bentley has always been on the cutting edge of technology and given its faculty the training and support to stay ahead of the evolving world economy. I was the first female to be tenured in Bentley’s accountancy department and the first to earn the rank of full professor. (It took the department 10 years to tenure another woman.) It was difficult to receive tenure and rank, but I was fortunate to have two male champions that stood up for me when I needed them most. To these two gentlemen, I owe a huge debt of gratitude.

Over the years at Bentley, I have developed several new courses, two of which recently and happily allowed Susan and me to collaborate once again. Susan also became a college professor, and when we discovered we were both developing risk and performance measurement courses, we decided to start performing research together.

So would I do it all over again? Yes. Despite the hardships, accounting has provided me with a good income, an unlimited intellectual pursuit, and many enduring friendships. I feel I have been a pioneer for women in the field, and I hope I serve as a role model for both my female and male students. I try to impart my love of accounting to both accounting and nonaccounting majors, letting them know that “Accounting rocks” and “Accounting makes the world go round.”

Editor’s Note: This month’s columnist, responding to my “Would you do it over again?” question posed last year, makes me believe future of the profession is in good hands as long as people like her are teaching.
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