Women In Acounting

A Guide To Women in Accounting

women_in_accounting_big_pictureWomen in Accounting:

The Big Picture

63% of all accountants and auditors in the United States are womenCompared to many other industries, accounting is a fantastic field of employment for women. The work is hard, but jobs are stable and well rewarding. While many traditionally male-dominated industries are slow to respond to the growing number of women in the workforce, the accounting industry as a whole is surprisingly agile—career opportunities are better than they have ever been before for women.

Over the last twenty years, women have carved a role for themselves in all levels of the accounting profession. Catalyst.org and the AICPA recently revealed some very telling statistics about the position of women in the accounting field. At the entry associate level, women make up approximately 48% of the workforce, and this number increases to 55% at the supervisor/senior associate level. However at the manager level, this percentage decreases to 50%, and to 41% at the senior manager level.

Women in accounting statisticsWe want to believe that women are equal in all things accounting related, and this is true for the first few tiers of the accounting profession. Unfortunately, like many corporate positions, the closer to the top, the fewer women there are.  From the director level on up, the percentage of women making up the workforce plummets to 16%. The principal and partner level at public accounting firms are no better, maxing out at around 18% and 20% respectively.

Part of the issue is because of the partnership culture of public accounting firms. The partnership structure sets an age-related tenure limit that results in an “up and out” culture (when a partner reaches a certain number of years as a partner they typically have to retire). In fact, the Accounting Women’s Society of Certified Public Accountants found that “rising women evaporate from accounting firm’s partnership pipeline,” and that many women leave public accounting for careers in other industry or entrepreneurship. For women, this sets a time limit on the number of years they have to establish their career because, during the time they might spend advancing their career, they may be spending starting families.

women_in_accounting_statisticsWomen in Accounting:

by the Numbers

A study by Catalyst, a nonprofit organization whose primary mission is to “accelerate progress for women through workplace inclusion,” has shown some interesting statistics that are consistent with the workplace today. Some of this information is presented below. 

Women in Accounting by Firm Size in the U.S.

Pay Gap

  • Women working as accountants or auditors earn a weekly median salary of $999 compared to $1236 earned by men in the same field
  • 47% of firms confirm that they review and confirm an equitable starting point for all employees

Women in Accounting - Higher EducationWomen in Accounting:

Higher Education

In 2015 the AICPA released data on the total number of women in accounting programs across the country. Over the course of the 2013-2014 academic year, 47% of all enrollees in bachelor’s and master’s degree programs were women.

These enrollment percentages can be further broken down by degree:

  • 46% female students in bachelor’s programs
  • 53% female students in master’s programs
  • 48% female students in PhD programs

This data is consistent with the percentages entering the workforce as well (49% female to 51% male), indicating an equitable hiring ratio in the accounting industry. However, over the course of the last eight years, the AICPA found that the enrollment of females has decreased from 52% in 2006 to the current 47%.

Graduation percentages mirror enrollment percentages very closely with women accounting for 48% of all accounting graduates. The AICPA’s data reveals other interesting trends in racial demographics as well.

  • White/Caucasian graduates make up 62% of all accounting graduates—the overwhelming majority of graduates
  • Asian/Pacific Islanders are 11% of all graduates and are the next largest group
  • Hispanic/Latino make up 6%
  • Black/African American make up 5%
  • Multiethnic make up 2%
  • “Other” make up 14%

Furthermore, 69% of new hires in 2014 identified themselves as white. Please note that these percentages do not necessarily indicate racial biases in hiring trends. Many firms seek to make themselves an equal opportunity, inclusive environments (at least on paper) so we may see this trend change over the next few years. Indeed, 69% is an all-time low in the last 14 years (80% in 2000).

women_in_accounting_obstacles_to_advancementWomen in Accounting:

Obstacles to Advancement

There are several key factors that prevent women from rising to the top. These factors are not exclusive to women alone, but rather have a greater impact on the careers of women than they do on men.

working_womanWork Life Balance

As a prospective student, you may have heard your parents talk about work-life balance when they complain about having to go into the office on a weekend or having to work late on weeknights. To some degree, you’ve dealt with it yourself as you’ve tried to juggle friends, family, and academics.

Put simply, work life balance is the balance between how much time you get to spend on your own pursuits (spending time with family, friends, hobbies etc.) and how much time you have to spend at work. Accounting is a demanding job—especially life in public accounting. During busy seasons, accountants can typically work 60 or more hours a week, with some pulling closer to 80-100 hours a week. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for personal pursuits or time with family. Many firms try to compensate for this by offering more paid time off, but the fact of the matter is that the long work week can have a grievous impact on a person’s relationships. There are many men and women that feel that the money earned in such a career is not worth the relationships of friends and family.


Having a greater impact than work life balance on women is the family. For many women family is an absolute priority and all things come second to it. Young professional women that enter the workplace often exit the workplace a few years later so that they can raise a family. It’s this action that highlights the struggle of women in accounting—many women feel that they have to choose between family and career. These women often have to ask themselves what gives them the most satisfaction—internal validation from the career, or the validation that comes from career advancement.

Family is an issue that impacts both men and women, but because of societal norms and pressures, women are more intensely impacted by these issues. When these women encounter an inflexible work schedule, very rarely does work take precedence over family.


One issue facing women in accounting is visibility. Often, not enough women know about the advancement of women in a firm. It’s important to increase the visibility of advancement. When the advancement of women is kept low profile, the firm loses. Men and women that could benefit from seeing how their company treats and advances women are left out of the loop and are left to see their firm as a stagnant culture. Without publicity, women can’t say, “That woman looks like me. I can easily put myself in that role.” Without that vision, women rising to the top will be limited.

Recent studies have shown that women are also less likely to raise their hand and speak up in the workplace than men. In a sense they “don’t sit at the table” and if they do, they don’t speak as loudly as the men (not a question of volume).


Society has a significant influence on what the role of a woman is and how much a woman should or should not work. A company’s culture can be a reflection of societal norms and prejudices. Depending on the firm’s internal culture, women may find it harder to rise in the ranks. In truth, the culture issue has a strong correlation with visibility in the firm. Female professionals in a culture that does not promote women readily will find themselves isolated, without support from peers or management.

closing_the_gapWomen in Accounting:

Influencing the Gap

Over the last 25 years, the number of women in important roles in accounting firms has dramatically increased, but there is still a long way to go in bringing balance to the gender ratio—especially in the upper echelons of the firm. As baby boomers retire and more and more millennials enter the workforce and take their place, we are seeing a “changing of the guard” so to speak. Even as you’re reading this article and learning about the state of women in accounting, the seeds of change have already been sown. Change starts with one person at a time. You can be an influencer, and you can be the one to bring about the change you want to see in the world.

The following are a few tips to help you with your career.


Communication skills are essential in EVERY job—regardless of male or female. Let’s face it; we’re now in a generation of people that want to have everything. We want to have a successful career, time with our families, and time to pursue our own hobbies and interest. In many surveys and studies of millennials entering the workplace, personal time is one of the most asked for perks.

So how do you get these perks? You have to ask for it of course! This is where the communication skills come in and play an important role in your career. To be able to get what you want you need to communicate it with your co-workers and managers.  If you need more time because of family obligations, be sure to communicate it. While many firms are getting better about helping employees maintain a good work/life balance, they can’t know your individual needs without communication.

So what if you’re good at numbers and not so great with people? If you’re still in school take an organizational behavior class or even a negotiating class. Learn how to have the difficult conversation by roleplaying with a good friend. Practice what you want to say, and then keep practicing it. While you don’t need to recite things from memory, having rehearsed a conversation can help ease the nerves that come with difficult conversations.

One of the “Bibles” in negotiation and learning how to adequately communicate is Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In by Fisher, Ury, and Patton.  Based on the Harvard Negotiation Project, this book carries key insights that deal with all levels of negotiation and conflict resolution. It’s a step by step strategy to achieving mutually acceptable agreements in every kind of conversation.

Find a Mentor or Sponsor

A mentor or a sponsor in the workplace is someone that can give you guidance. They are a role model that will help you grow professionally. Tying back to visibility in a firm, keep an eye out for someone in a higher position that you admire and like working for. If you can work for them and impress them, be sure to let them know that they are a role model for you. As they rise in a company, they’ll be able to go to bat for you as well, talking you up to management.

A mentor/sponsor relationship can be formal or informal. Some firms try to pair up junior and senior employees so that junior employees will always have someone to talk to and pose questions to. Whether these relationships come about because of the firm or more organically, be sure to use them and develop a trusting relationship. The more visibility you have, the better off you will be in the long run.

Mentors can help employees feel less isolated and make key introductions to new groups of coworkers. Mentors may be able to demonstrate how to perform tasks, and how to navigate the politics of the workplace.

Join an Affinity Group

Affinity GroupA recent trend in corporate offices has been the emergence of the affinity group. Sometimes seen as a networking group, they provide forums for employees to gather and discuss ideas outside of their line of work. Many of these groups are organized by gender, race, disabilities, military service, age, and other shared interests, involvement in these groups is strongly encouraged.  For the most part, affinity group’s primary purpose is to enrich the experience of employees and create awareness and empathy.

Many companies have a women’s affinity network or group for female employees to gather and discuss issues that they may encounter in their firm. Joining these groups and being a part of them is a great way to increase your visibility and to make connections with key people in your firm. Your group may sponsor education and professional development events that will help you in your career.

If there isn’t an affinity group already in place at your firm, you could start one by creating a “Lean in Circle.” These are small groups were made popular by the Lean In movement championed by Sheryl Sandberg. I have to take a moment here to gush all about the Lean In movement of Sandberg. She’s the former CEO of Facebook, and her book Lean In is a best selling hit that has helped inspire a movement of women in the business world.  It’s a movement to reshape the way women and men behave in the workplace.

Part of her motivation in writing the book was  to address some of the issues that women have in the workplace. We’ve talked about a few of them here, but ultimately it’s about how women quietly lean back and miss opportunities because of doubt or a lack of faith in their own abilities.  She noticed these problems and decided to do something about it.

The book encourages women to “lean in” and seize the opportunities that exist out there and become a leader.  It’s about encouraging women to believe in their dreams and helping men do their part to create a more equal world. As she put it in a famous TED talk, “No one gets to the corner office by sitting at the side, not at  the table.”

Women in Accounting:famous_women_in_accounting

Prominent Women in Accounting

You’re going to meet a lot of amazing women in your accounting career. So many of them have inspiring stories of overcoming adversity to achieve their dreams. This is not an exhaustive list of women in accounting. It’s just a highlight of a few prominent women of the past and present in accounting.

Sharada Bhansali

sharada_bhansaliRecently ranked as one of the most powerful women in accounting, by CPA Practice Advisor Magazine and the AWSA, Bhansali is a trailblazer. During the 1980s she brought in desktop PCs to help accountants work more efficiently and used this innovation to pave the way for many of the accounting software that accountants use today.


Mary T. Washington 

MaryTWashingtonWashington was the first female African American to earn her CPA and is one of the founders of Washington, Pittman & McKeever—a leading African-American-owned accounting firm.  When she began her career after high school in the 1920s, she worked as an assistant to the cashier and vice president. Her boss, Arthur Wilson gave her the experience she needed to pursue a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University in 1941, opening her own accounting firm in her business and recruiting black businesses as clients. She hired aspiring black CPAs and helped to create an “underground railroad” for African Americans needing experience to earn their credentials.

Teresa S. Polley

terri_polleyIn 2010, Polley was named as President and CEO of the Financial Accounting Foundation (FAF). This organization’s key duty is oversight, and it provides its services in the administration and finances of the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) and the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB). She is the first female to head the FAF in the organization’s 44-year history.


Cathy Engelbert

cathy-engelbert accountantThough there are many women that lead accounting firms, few are as high profile as Cathy Engelbert. Appointed the CEO of Deloitte in 2015, Engelbert is the first woman to lead one of the “big 4” professional firms. She rose through the ranks to this position and is now responsible for 70,000 employees in a firm that reported nearly $15 billion in revenue in 2014.

accounting organizations for womenWomen in Accounting:


There is strength in numbers. Joining a women’s organization is a great way to connect with other women, get support and advance your career.  There are a number of organizations that exist to help women in accounting.

  • Accounting & Financial Women’s AllianceEmblazoned on their website right below the name of their organizations are three words: Connect, advance, lead. These three words some up the core of what the AFWA is all about. From supporting young women beginning their educations as students to professionals looking to keep their skills sharp, the AFWA is dedicated to helping women reach their full potential and make meaningful contributions to their profession.  In fact,  the AFWA has been doing this for more than 75 years. Joining this group brings about many benefits, including conferences held throughout the year that are hosted by local chapters (these conferences also provide CPE credit).
  • American Woman’s Society of Certified Public Accountants – The American Woman’s Society of Certified Public Accountants is a nationwide that support’s female CPAs in their careers. Since success really depends on having good relationships and strong mentors, the AWSCPA strives to help women develop these relationships among its members and provide opportunities for professional growth. The AWSCPA prides itself as being the voice of women in the accounting profession; furthermore, recognizing the achievements of outstanding women in the field.
  • AICPA – Women in the Profession – We would be in trouble if left out the AICPA from this list. As the official organization that supports the CPA credential, the AICPA is dedicated to assisting women in their professional development needs. To this end, the AICPA established the Women’s Initiatives Executive Committee (WIEC) to investigate major issues that women in accounting face in their careers. AICPA also has a number of conferences and leadership workshops throughout the year that are fantastic opportunities for women to network and learn.
  • Educational Foundation for Women in Accounting – The EFWA supports women in their pursuit of an accounting career by funding education and research, as well as publishing career literature and other publications.  Most notably,  the EFWA features undergraduate and graduate level scholarships to help women in their education.
  • LinkedIn – LinkedIn is replacing the need for resumes, but has also been an amazing networking opportunity. LinkedIn has many groups related to women in accounting—too many to list.

The AFWA and the AWSCPA are two of the largest and most prominent organizations for women in accounting outside of the AICPA. Beyond accounting specific organizations, there are a number of other established organizations that were founded to help women in business.

  • American Business Women’s Association (ABWA) – The American Business Women’s Association brings together women of diverse occupations and provides them with opportunities to network and develop professionally. The organization often puts on programs of leadership development. Because this organization has a presence in more than 300 cities across the nation, the ABWA is a force for improvement in the workplace.
  • Business and Professional Women’s Foundation (BPW) – The primary mission of the BPWF is to conduct research into the issues that working women face today. Part of this includes battling the pay gap and promoting knowledge that can reduce the disparity. Knowledge is power, and better understanding the issues that women face will give them the power to overcome obstacles to advancement.
  • Financial Women’s Association – Drawing from all corners of the financial sector, the FWA develops the leadership capabilities of women to further the role of women in finance. The FWA is an organization where women can learn a lot. Statistically speaking, 85% of members in the FWA hold senior positions of power and influence within their companies, with over 57% of them having completed some level of graduate school or graduate studies. With such a wealth of experience to draw from, it’s no wonder the FWA is an integral part of promoting women’s causes in the business world.
  • National Association of Women Business Owners – If you’re a woman and you own a business, then this is your network. An outlet for women that own businesses, the NAWBO draws its memberships from women in all industries across the countries. Being a member of the organization allows you to connect with local and national members, as well as use business resources to help grow your own business.
  • National Latina Business Women Association – Since its foundation in 1998, the NLBWA’s goal is to support and promote the development of Latina business owners. It provides services and education on how to address key issues affecting business in their community.

Women in Accounting:

Where to Go From Here

The truth of the matter is that the marketplace is changing and women in the higher ranks of a company will be the future. There is no reversing this trend. For example, Deloitte—one of the big four accounting firms—recently appointed Cathy Engelbert to become the firms latest chief executive officer. This marks the first time a woman has been appointed to this position in any of the major accounting firms.

Compared to many other industries, women in accounting have it much, much better. Yet, there is so much more room for improvement. So long as there exists a substantial pay gap (at times as much as 22%) and so little female representation at the top of companies, there will be work to do.  The outlook, however, remains good. As more and more women enter positions of power and gain visibility, the easier it will become for women to follow in their footsteps.

The business world is changing for the better, and it will be better with your support.

Women in Accounting:

Further Resources