Kathleen Harris’s research revealed that women employees at public accounting firms serve less prestigious clients than their male counterparts. (Photo by WSU Photos Services)

More Work Required to Achieve Gender Equity in Public Accounting Firms, Study Says

By Eric Hollenbeck

For the past 30 years, the number of women beginning their careers in public accounting has equaled the number of men entering the field. However, additional work remains to address inequities in promotion and advancement, says Kathleen Harris, assistant professor of accounting at the WSU Carson College of Business.

According to a 2017 report by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, women represent only 22 percent of partners in CPA firms.

“This highlights the fact that there are still hurdles women must overcome to make it to the top of the most prestigious specialties,” says Harris.

Harris co-authored a study with researchers from Portland State University and Florida Atlantic University that revealed disparities between men and women in regards to the prestige of clients they serve. The research was published by the Journal of Business Ethics.

According to the authors, several factors determine “client prestige,” such as client type, size of firm, and fees for work performed, among other things. Publicly traded companies are considered the most prestigious clients because they are highly visible in the marketplace, have shorter reporting deadlines, more complex financial statements, and are at a higher risk for litigation.

“Early in your career you have to decide what type of clients you’re going to serve and your specialization,” says Harris. “To say there is true equity at these firms, you would want to see men and women making decisions equally in regard to their career paths and the clients they serve.”

Peeling Back the Layers

The research findings that women disproportionally serve lower prestige clients reveal a problem that still needs to be addressed, says Harris.

“Bringing awareness to gender differences is the first step in addressing the issue within the industry,” she says.

While she and her colleagues acknowledge the progress made over the last 30 years to promote gender equity, Harris says U.S. public accounting firms continue to be “gendered organizations,” which have historically favored men in terms of career advancement.

Gendered organizations still exist because of practices and policies—both formal and informal—that continue to reinforce inequity within the workplace, she says.

“We are probably seeing more of the informal aspect of it that really affects women in trying to promote their career,” Harris says.

The Path to Partnership

Becoming a partner is often considered the “brass ring” of one’s career in public accounting. For new graduates, it is a path that takes 10 to 15 years and often requires a higher degree of individual dedication, flexibility, and personal sacrifice.

“Women often have to make choices early on in their careers, which may slow their career trajectory compared to their male peers. Starting a family is one example,” says Harris.

Harris pondered that decision herself during her previous career in public accounting. “I was trying to make the most of my career while not compromising my desire to have a family,” she says.

Leaders and decision-makers have an opportunity to address issues of inequity within their organizations by carefully examining how policy and culture may affect career advancement.

Closing The Gap

Harris’s research has implications for businesses outside of the field of accounting and could help other industries bridge the inequity gap.

“Having an equal number of women and men in a firm isn’t enough,” says Harris. “In equitable workplaces, both women and men have the opportunities to develop the skills needed to serve prestigious clients and advance their careers.”