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June 1989

Promoting women CPAs (certified public accountants) (an analysis of the report of the Upward Mobility of Women Special Committee)

by Borgia, Carl R.

    Abstract- The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) charged its Upward Mobility of Women Special Committee with the task of recommending strategies to encourage the promotion of women CPAs. The Committee recognized obstacles to the advancement of women in its March, 1988 report, including: the perception problem; a lack of awareness of success criteria; and the burden of child care and family responsibilities. Recommendations for the removal of obstacles to the career paths of women and fostering upward mobility include: providing guidance to employers to encourage promotions; monitor trends and compile information concerning women's promotions; and appointing more women to the AICPA's boards, committees, and council.

HEADNOTE: In a carefully structured study an AICPA committee has examined the presence of women in the profession, and the obstacles they face in realizing more than just a position in management. The author describes the methodology and scope of this study and its report. Cogent suggestions have been made for the AICPA, and for women professionals themselves, as well as some pertinent suggestions for men. Women's role in the accounting profession has changed dramatically during the last two decades. Societal and political influences contributed significantly to the increasing presence of women in the profession. For example, affirmative action developed during the 1960s in response to the public's awareness of discrimination issues and the general desire for equal opportunity for all segments of society. Women's desire for equal opportunity resulted in the women's liberation movement in the 1970s. During these years, women fought to establish themselves equally in all professional endeavors. Some women entered the workplace for purely economic reasons, as families found surviving on one income difficult. Also, a higher divorce rate and a longer female life span meant more women had to fend for themselves. CPA firms had their needs as well. Growth of the accounting profession and the upgrading of qualifications for certification created a shortage of CPAs. This environment gave women the opportunity to enter the profession in increasing numbers.

Today, the woman CPA is not the exception. Women are graduating from university accounting programs at a rate equal to men. A 1984 report by the AICPA Future Issues Committee makes the point that women will probably constitute more than half of the profession in 20 years. Despite this growing presence of women in accounting positions, the fact remains that few women are promoted to top positions. This situation, however, is not unique to accounting, but exists in other professions as well. Thus, the upward mobility of women CPAs serves society by setting an example for other professions.

In response to this issue, the AICPA authorized the Upward Mobility of Women Special Committee (see Table 1). This Committee had the task of recommending strategies to encourage the upward mobility of professional women in public accounting, industry, government, and academia. The Committee approached this charge by identifying the obstacles women face in being promoted and by recommending ways for the AICPA to help eliminate these obstacles. The Committee's methodology consisted of reviewing relevant literature, analyzing appropriate statistics, holding interviews, distributing questionnaires, and communicating with other professional organizations. These investigations came the basis for the Committee's conclusions and recommendations, published in a March 1988 report: Upward Mobility of Women.

The Committee's review of relevant literature included articles and documents relating to professional women and did not limit itself to material pertaining only to the accounting profession. For this reason, the bibliography in the Committee's report is eclectic.

The Committee's statistical analysis considered both published data and data collected especially for its study. The Committee had at its disposal statistics on the number and positions of women CPAs as published annually by the AICPA Minority Recruiting and Equal Opportunity Committee. It also collected data through a survey sent to state societies and a review of the rosters of the Institute's committees, board, and council. This helped the Committee develop statistics on the number of women in leadership roles.

To gain insights into the issue, the Committee interviewed panels of AICPA members and others. In selecting panelists, Committee members recommended men and women in the 30 to 40 age group, which the committee felt were old enough to have experienced promotion and young enough to represent contemporary views of the sociological environment. The Committee developed a questionnaire for use in its interviews. It later distributed the same questionnaire to participants at a meeting of the American Woman's Society of CPAs.

The Committee also asked other organizations if they had undertaken similar studies. Only three of those they asked had done so. The National Society of Public Accountants studied occupational stress and found that women faced greater stress than men in the workplace. Women felt that they were constantly watched and had to perform better than their male counterparts on the job. The New York State Society of CPAs performed a five-year survey on the turnover of staff in public accounting firms. The survey included questions on women in accounting and on parenting. Most female respondents felt that parenting and public accounting are not compatible, and men and women had different perceptions on the degree of prejudice experienced by women. A study by the Ohio State Society of CPAs made recommendations to enhance the participation by women at the chapter and state levels. These recommendations are similar to recommendations of the Committee.

The American Bar Association studied the status of women in the legal profession and found that most women lawyers felt that they had hit a "glass ceiling." This "glass ceiling" represents an invisible barrier that blocks women from rising to the top. The obstacles cited by female lawyers are similar to those noted by female CPAs in the Committee report. This substantiates the opinion that some parallels can be drawn across professions.

In its report, the Committee identified seven obstacles confronting female accountants and made 11 recommendations designed to help AICPA members and their employers eliminate these obstacles.

Obstacles to the Upward Mobility of Women

The Committee reports the following factors as having an impact on the upward mobility of women CPAs. It believes these factors are descriptive of AICPA members and their employers in general. The Committee also believes these obstacles are similar to the obstacles confronted by women employees in other professions.

Cultural Attitudes Toward Women

Although women have recently succeeded in diminishing discriminatory attitudes, outdated and negative ideas about women still exist in the workplace. Old cultural perceptions seem resistant to change, and women are sometimes still thought of as dependents and not as business colleagues. Discrimination has moved underground for the most part. Perhaps EEO laws have had an effect. Discrimination is so subtle in many instances that younger women do not realize that it might affect their advancement. For example, in accounting firms, younger women are routinely promoted to senior level positions along with their male counterparts. But as these women reach the point when they expect promotion to a higher level they begin to recognize that prejudices still exist.

Discriminatory actions and attitudes encountered by female accountants in their jobs are not different from those mentioned by women in other fields. Women mention that they are still thought of and referred to as "girls" or "ladies" and different standards still exist. Management often discerns aggressiveness in men as a positive trait and in women as a negative trait. Anger in men is often viewed as permissible, yet in women is often viewed as objectionable.

The Perception Problem

While some employers try to identify obstacles to the career advancement of women employees, others deny that obstacles exist. The Committee refers to this denial as "the perception problem." Denying that women face obstacles in advancing their careers has a negative impact on the organization. Women employees feel isolated and frustrated. They can not discuss their problems with anyone because they fear management may give them less desirable professional assignments and unfavorable performance evaluations. Womenmay resign as a result.

Awareness of Success Criteria

The Committee investigations revealed that women as well as men are able to identify the personal traits that are necessary for advancement: technical competence; commitment; willingness to work hard; good interpersonal and management skills; and leadership characteristics. Not all women, however, are able to identify the subtle criteria necessary for advancement to top level positions: a mentor; visibility within the organization; and a successful self-image. On the whole, women receive less advice from superiors about how to succeed, and are less aware of the benefits of being integrated as part of the team.

Some corporations have instituted programs to help women become aware of criteria necessary for a successful career. One program, for example, has a committee of managerial and professional women meeting regularly with the president and CEO to discuss salaries, job advancement, sexual harassment, work-family conflicts, and other matters of concern. Another program tries to identify talented women to insure some career development assistance. Such programs assist women in advancing, and show that management is working toward creating equality at the highest levels.

Child Care and Family Responsibility

Women in society have traditionally been responsible for family and household tasks. While this situation is changing, women still bear most of the burden for maintaining the home and family. If women are interested in having a career, these responsibilities can create problems. Employers are likely to assume a married woman is giving only secondary loyalty to her job. Thus, while marriage and family are considered a social asset for a man, they constitute a major disadvantage for a woman and may hinder her advancement. Many women, resigned to this situation, have foregone marriage and family for their careers. Some may be happy with their decision, but others resent having had to make a choice.

Not all employers are insensitive to women employees' responsibilities to family. Some employers have established on-site or off-site child care centers, and traditional work schedules are changing to accomodate working parents. Part-time schedules, extended leaves of absence, flextime schedules, and vacation and sick leave policies are in existence. An employee opting for such schedules may experience slower advancement, but the opportunity exists to maintain association with the firm. These changes show that employers are involved in finding solutions to the conflict of career and family. These solutions may actually make good business sense.


Women accountants experience a greater degree of stress than male counterparts. This problem is particularly worrisome in a profession in which stress is so pervasive due to the long hours. Stress in women accountants is greater than in men accountants because of the pressures of family responsibilities and management, cultural prejudice, and the perception that to succeed a women's performance must exceed that of her male colleagues. As a result many women look for other employment.

Dating and Marriage

As more women enter the accounting profession, the possibility of emotional involvement among coworkers increases. Dating and marriage between employees may cause friction in an organization. For this reason, many firms have dating and marriage policies on the books. Employers should review these policies to ensure no discrimination exists against women.

Involvement in Professional Associations

Women have not participated as actively as men in professional and industry organizations. The Committee reports that the number of women holding leadership positions in the AICPA has more than doubled, from 40 to 102 since 1980, but women still hold significantly few of the total 1600 positions available.

Many women have not discovered that professional and industry organizations offer them ways of furthering their careers. For example, accountants can serve as committee members and officers, write for professional and trade journals, and speak at work-related conferences. These activities give members visibility within the profession, and colleagues and employers take notice.


The obstacles to the upward mobility of women CPAs are the basis for the following recommendations. The Committee states that its recommendations are decidedly broad because it does not believe it should dictate how AICPA committees and other organizations implement recommendations. However, the Committee's suggestions are at times quite specific. The Committee suggests that the AICPA should:

* Provide guidance for members and their employers on how to encourage the upward mobility of female professional staff;

* Monitor trends and compile information that relates to upward mobility of women in accounting;

* Appoint more women to AICPA committees, boards, and council;

* Seek out opportunities to feature women in AICPA media;

* Consider upward mobility of women when developing CPE courses;

* Encourage state societies to appoint more women to leadership positions;

* Communicate with other accounting organizations and other professions about issues related to upward mobility of women;

* Study and report on the effect of stress on female CPAs as it relates to career advancement;

* Consider a reduced membership fee for members who are professionally inactive for a lengthy period of time but who plan to return to work;

* Have the AICPA president assign the preceding recommendations to appropriate committees and staff for action;

* Establish a process to monitor the recommendations in its report. These recommendations are a clear effort to promote the upward mobility of women through the offices of the AICPA, potentially improving women's position within the AICPA and the profession. The AICPA is well equipped to provide guidance through association publications, conferences, and audiovisual aids. Perhaps the most important recommendation is the call for monitoring action taken on the suggestions of the report. This feedback insures continued study of the issue.

The Committee report also gives specific suggestions to employers. It states that employers should:

* Establish a mentor process to encourage the training and guidance of talented women;

* Hold open discussions on the issue of the upward mobility of women;

* Appoint an ombudsman with whom women can discuss problems related to their careers;

* Purge the organization's written material of all sexist references;

* Support women employee participation in AICPA and state societies;

* Establish fair marriage and dating guidelines;

* Institute constructive child care policies;

* Define their position on pregnancy and child care leave with clearly written policies. Also, the report offers suggestions to women CPAs themselves. It states that women should:

* Become involved in office activities;

* Get involved in business luncheons and meetings with clients and customers;

* Participate in AICPA and state society functions;

* Join women's support groups.


The AICPA Committee closes its report by suggesting that a high priority be given to the issue of the upward mobility of women as part of the AICPA's total program. Women will make up almost 50% of the work force by the turn of the century. The question remains whether women will then hold an equal percentage of top management positions. In 1983, women made up almost 39% of the work force in accounting and auditing; yet in CPA firms, they only made up 1% of the partners and principals. The Committee hopes its report will act as a catalyst for change.

The accounting profession is looked upon as a monitor of fair practice in our society. If the profession is to continue in this role, it must show justice in its business practices. Women and minorities must be given equal opportunity for employment and advancement.

For various reasons, change takes time. Change will come about because institutions change and people change. Firms must encourage women by helping them progress in their careers. Women, themselves, must develop an awareness of the more subtle criteria for success.

Some problems may not necessarily be gender specific but rather generic in nature. For example, turnover in CPA firms is greater in women employees than in men employees; but more males are leaving CPA firms today than ever before. A new awareness of the quality of life affects both genders. The answer to this particular question may be innovative schedules with flexible hours, flexible workdays and flexible locations as options for female and male employees with children.

Some men may be unaware of the subtle criteria needed for success. They also may be under the impression that success only comes about through hard work and excellent skills. Consequently, these men may need to know the importance of being involved in the less technical aspects of their profession; and the suggestions offered to females to help them advance their careers are, in many cases, relevant to men.

The complexion of the accounting profession has changed significantly. Today, unlike 20 years ago, women make up a large segment of the profession. Thus, the Committee study is particularly timely. The insights gained from self-study and review are invaluable to the whole population of professional accountants. If the society is to be an ethical one, its monitors must be ethical in the way they conduct their own business.

While the AICPA should be commended for its role in authorizing this Committee and the distribution of its recommendations, the profession should take a stronger stand on the issue. Perhaps the AICPA disagreed with some of the specific Committee recommendations and, for this reason, fell short of endorsing the recommendations in the report. Accountants, however, should rally about the cause. By promoting women CPAs, accountants will promote themselves as monitors of society. Tabular Data Omitted

Carl R. Borgia, PhD, CPA, is an Assistant Professor of Accounting at Florida Atlantic University, Broward Campus, in Fort Lauderdale, FL.

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