Behind the numbers: When it comes to female CPAs, statistics are not black and white

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women-behind-the-numbersAt first blush the numbers seem alarming: 40 percent of all CPAs are women, but only 21 percent make it to the level of partner in their firms.

The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and the Accounting & Financial Women’s Alliance both stress the importance of firms having more women shareholders and partners.

But there is a story behind those numbers that local female CPAs have lived, and it is more complicated than a glass ceiling. Those numbers show that the demands of being a certified public accountant are tough, requires travel, long hours — especially during tax season — and more than a number-crunching mentality.

The result: Not every female CPA aspires to partner.

“You can look at the numbers and say either ‘women are not ambitious or they are not getting a fair shake.’ That is not the case,” said Deborah Helton, partner at BiggsKofford CPAs.

Becoming partner in a firm is a huge commitment, said Judy Kaltenbacher, tax partner at Stockman Kast Ryan + Co. Today’s CPAs are business advisers with pressure and deadlines, and not everyone who starts in the industry has the gumption to stay.

Changing culture

Kaltenbacher knew, even before she had children, that when she became a mother she would work part-time. It was the late 1980s and there were mumblings at the national level about CPA firms needing to create flexible working schedules as a way to retain female CPAs. Kaltenbacher, then working at a Top 4 national CPA firm, asked about working 20 hours a week.

“I was told that in the audit department it would never happen,” she said.

They told her that if she worked a part-time schedule, she could kiss goodbye making partner and she might never even get promoted.

She did it anyway. When she was in the office, she was focused and determined. Her bosses saw that. At the time all the partners at her firm were male and there only was one female manager. Nationwide, back then, about 26 percent of all senior managers in CPA firms were women.

Kaltenbacher heard the break-room talk. Her co-workers believed that part-time employees created more work for them.

She kept working and was promoted to manager.

Then in 1995, that national firm closed shop in Colorado Springs and some of its employees formed their own firm, Stockman Kast Ryan + Co. They had a different view on flexible schedules and didn’t want to lose good women — no accounting firm could afford that, as all predictions were saying that need for accounting services was growing. The U.S. Department of Labor predicted there would be a 22 percent increase in accounting and auditing jobs from 2004 to 2014.

In 2010, Kaltenbacher made partner. Of Stockman Kast Ryan’s nine partners, three are women, including one in the audit department. Among the firm’s 11 managers, eight are women. Nationwide, women now make up about 43 percent of senior managers.

Kaltenbacher feels she made the right choice for her and her family. It took her longer to make her way up to partner. But she wouldn’t change it.

“To me, you give 110 percent every minute, whatever the hours you are working,” she said. “You don’t give up. I see that a lot — if someone is not happy, rather than try to make a difference, they just leave.

“If I had given up, I don’t think we would have flexible schedules.”

Some firms around the country still may be reluctant to adopt flexible schedules, said Linda Harris, CPA and board member of the Accounting & Financial Women’s Alliance, which just changed its name from the American Society of Women Accountants.

Harris is troubled by the smaller number of female CPAs who make partner and believes rigid work schedules play a role in keeping women from moving up. Those schedules encourage them to leave the profession.

“We think it is beneficial to have more women in leadership roles,” she said.

The alliance, which has 3,000 members, encourages female CPAs to work on leadership skills and continue their education. The alliance also aims to arm them with information to push for flexible work schedules and change workplace culture, she said.

“There are so many women who believe we are on a level playing field,” Harris said. “It’s not as level as they think it is, so they better be prepared when they enter the workforce.”

The alliance is working on rebranding its organization to be more inviting to women in all aspects of finance.

“We are still in a male-dominated field,” Harris said.

Attractive career

Those glaring numbers — 40 percent of all CPAs are women; 21 percent make partner — definitely reflect that being a public accountant is an intense profession, Helton said.

“That is just women making choices,” she added.

But the fact that nearly half of all CPAs are women shows that it is an attractive career for women, she said. It can be flexible. For example, she never misses her children’s school events or parties.

“I feel like CPAs — you own your career,” she said.

Helton started as an intern at BiggsKofford in 2004.

“Absolutely I had it in my mind that I wanted to be a partner,” she said. “And I wanted to be a partner by the time I was 30.”

She didn’t realize what an ambitious goal she had set, she said. But she made it known to her bosses that she would join them one day in the partners’ meetings. When she took maternity leave, some wondered if she would return, she said.

One study on women’s advancement in public accounting found that when women “off-ramp” they are less likely to return.

But Helton returned and started setting short-term and long-term goals. She “stood in the dark” sometimes, not entirely sure she knew what she was doing, but counted on her colleagues to guide her, she said.

“And you eat some humble pie because you might not know what you are doing,” she said.

Last April, at the age of 30, Helton became a partner at BiggsKofford. She’s the only woman and the youngest partner at her firm.

“People need to be comfortable with what they want,” she said. “And, they have to be willing to be uncomfortable too — to grow, you sometimes have to be uncomfortable.”

Overcoming hurdles

Kimberly McKay wasn’t sure if she wanted to become a partner when she joined BKD CPAs & Advisors in 1992. She was traveling a lot with her job and wondered what she would do when she had children. In 1996, she gave birth to twins.

“I went to my managing partner and said, ‘I’m not sure how this is going to work,’ ” she recalled.

McKay was valuable, the partner insisted. “Let me know what you need,” he said.

She didn’t travel as much. That made her the exception with her flexible schedule, and she worried that it would hold her back.

“As you are working through it, you have to figure out what work/life balances for you personally,” she said.

To make partner in the firm, senior managers must retain clients and build a specialty. McKay did that in health care. The firm valued her skill set, she said. She made partner in 2003.

Today, she sits on the AICPA national healthcare expert panel and her colleagues voted her “Coach of the Year” for mentoring young CPAs.

Times have changed, McKay said. Back in the 1990s, career/life balance might have been a women’s issue. Today it’s a business issue and BKD, she said, is focused on attracting the younger generation.

“That 21 percent, I don’t know if that is a stat I measure,” she said. “Instead, it should be a measure of the success as an individual. Being a partner is not everyone’s goal. But it doesn’t mean she’s not successful.”

They once were called “Mommy tracks” but now they’re labeled as flexible schedules — and men too are taking advantage of them today, Kaltenbacher said. Women might not have known it at the time, but they helped set up a flexible work schedule model that can be used for Baby Boomers, who are of retirement age but may want to stay at work on a reduced schedule, and for the up-and-coming Millennial generation that wants to work hard and play hard, she said.

Kaltenbacher once thought that by staying home part-time with her children she wouldn’t have it all, and she was OK with that.

“I realized it was a matter of redefining what ‘it all’ meant,” she said. “I look back on life and say, ‘Did I have it all?’ Yes. I did.”

And no statistic, she said, can reflect that.

What CPAs say

  • Forty-one percent of female senior managers aspire to partner compared to 65 percent of male senior managers.
  • Women make up the majority of part-time, flex-time and non-partner-track employees.
  • Turnover of females in public accounting is most impacted by “family interfering with work.”
  • Mentors who have experienced the same kind of work/family juggling act are important.

Source: 2006 AICPA Survey on Workforce Trends