By Joanne Cleaver, Wilson Taylor Associates
Top leaders set the vision, but mid-level leaders make it reality
Somehow, accounting firm leadership has the impression that if they can just hire enough women and diverse new grads, the ‘woman problem’ and the ‘diversity problem’ will solve themselves.
That’s wishful thinking in the extreme. While women comprise 53% of new bachelor’s and master’s grads, according to the most recent AICPA statistics, they are only 23% of partners and principals. That’s a figure that’s consistent across all studies, including the Accounting MOVE Project, which compiles demographic data from 50 participating firms (and is managed by my firm, Wilson-Taylor Associates, in partnership with the AFWA).
Nearly all firms lose half their partner-potential women in the treacherous transition from senior manager to partner. At some firms, women comprise a robust 60% of senior managers…and 33% of partners and principals. At other firms, women comprise a thin 38% of senior managers, which often erodes significantly to 19% women partners – and in many cases, fewer.
It doesn’t matter how many women start their careers at a firm. It matters how many stay, and arrive at positions that can accelerate change for the next generations of women leaders. And as expectations rise for ethnic, socioeconomic and other types of diversity, firms that have figured out how to remove barriers for women will be able to adapt those practices to gain traction more quickly for staff with diverse identities.
Current leaders can’t make significant progress without buy-in from middle managers, and especially without the support of ‘career professionals’ who have deliberately decided not to pursue partnership. Some women, and some men, decide for a variety of reasons not to become partners or principals. Instead, these ‘career professionals’ take on significant administrative, technical or other firmwide leadership roles. The MOVE Project finds that women comprised 52%of career professionals in 2016, 57% in 2015, and 54% in 2014.
Mid-level managers and career professionals are the ones who put senior leaders’ vision into action. It has become a cliché that a key dynamic for change is “commitment from the top.” Of course, senior leaders’ visible, consistent and genuine advocacy for diversity and women’s initiatives is essential. But sweeping statements and feel-good moments dissolve if mid-career managers and career professionals don’t apply the mission to everyday decisions. That’s where real change happens.
Here are three reality checks to detect if mission statements will peter out or propel change:
- Are the initiatives synchronized with talent development and succession planning? If not, working on the initiative is pointless. Firms that align initiatives with long-term talent goals develop women and diverse candidates in the process of building the initiative.
- Are mid-level managers and career professionals evaluated and rewarded for non-billable activities that support the firm’s talent and diversity strategies? People will make decisions to earn rewards; if those decisions contradict initiatives and diversity goals, guess what wins?
- Are senior leaders transparent about their own personal evolution about understanding diversity and the advancement of women? When they lead by example – not by where they’ve been, but by where they’re going – midlevel managers and career professionals can be more open about how they, too, are in process on these complex issues.
When mid-level managers and professionals are expected to see leadership potential in every staffer, are encouraged to pursue unconventional career paths, and redefine the very definition of ‘success,’ they clear the way for diverse staff to own the mission, too.
Bio: Joanne Cleaver is president of Wilson-Taylor Associates, Inc., a content strategy firm that manages the Accounting MOVE Project, an annual research and advocacy project for women in the CPA profession. The AFWA is an association partner with MOVE, and the AFWA’s annual Best Accounting Firms for Women and Best Firms for Equity Leadership lists are based on MOVE results. To see the MOVE archive of reports, infographics, tools and presentations, visit s, visit https://wilson-taylorassoc.com/move/accounting.