The women are coming.
While men–particularly white men–continue to dominate financial and accounting companies in the Rochester area, women are on their way, and in some cases they’ve already arrived. In college classrooms where a woman would have felt out of place 30 years ago, increasingly women make up close to half the class, if not more than half.
Some of the gains employers and professors describe are more anecdotal than rock-solid evidence of gender parity, but the shift is undeniable.
Take, for example, the Rochester chapter of the New York State Society for Certified Public Accountants. In the chapter’s first 55 years, a man was elected president every single year. In the last 30 years, though, there have been 10 women who have held the position. And in the last decade, women have served back-to-back with other women or alternated with men.
Cheryl Yawman, a CPA who has worked as a headhunter in the accounting and finance world for 28 years, was president of the Rochester chapter twice. Early on in her career, she said, if she called together senior partners of local CPA firms to find out their recruiting needs, she was usually the only woman in the room. That has definitely changed, she said.
John Mourer, president-elect of the chapter, who expects to move up in June and then be followed by a woman, said accounting firms used to be mostly male but at the last firm he headed before his current one, he was the only male employee.
And the most recent student awards event for the Rochester chapter drew an audience that was primarily female, Mourer said. Board members were encouraged to sit with students, and at the table where he sat he was the only man. The awards were evenly split between male and female students.
Meanwhile, “the composition of accounting classes has changed dramatically in the 25 years that I’ve been teaching,” said Harry Howe, accounting professor at SUNY Geneseo. “When I first started, I think you saw classes that were 65-70 percent men. It’s a much more even gender balance these days. A number of years, it was decidedly 60 percent female.”
But Howe’s former student, Lynn Mucenski-Keck, now chair of finance and accounting at St. John Fisher College, says she’s actually seen a slight downturn in female students at Fisher in the last few years. She speculated that the reason may be that women continue to be drawn to education and nursing in disproportionate numbers, and those areas—both big majors at Fisher—need more entry-level employees right now.
“Usually when education drops, we see accounting and finance go up. Education is going up a little,” Mucenski-Keck said. “Nursing is busting out at the seams. In general, when the economy goes into recession, we see more people flock to business education.”
People in the finance and accounting fields say several shifts have happened that have encouraged women to go into those fields.
One is that there are more female role models, giving younger women the idea that the finance world is even a possibility. From female-owned investment companies (the nationally recognized Lori Van Dusen’s LVW Advisors) to deans of business schools (Denise Rotondo, who was at Geneseo and now is at Canisius College in Buffalo, and Mary Ellen Zuckerman, who served at Geneseo once and returned after Rotondo’s departure,) women now are sitting in leadership seats that once were exclusively reserved for men.
“Definitely seeing effective women leaders and realizing some of the things they accomplished and bring to the table have got to be very inspirational for young, women students,” Howe said.
It’s still not all that common to find female partners, noted Mollene Benison, one of three female partners at the accounting firm of Dejoy, Knauf & Blood, but she says she hasn’t experienced discrimination as a woman in her time in the field.
“Both men and women face challenges for different reasons,” Benison said. “My challenges might be different. I had to overcome them just the same.”
More women are entering and advancing in the field, Benison said, because companies are changing their approach to work-life balance, recognizing women still bear a greater share of child-rearing responsibilities.
“Maybe now women are being more vocal about what they want and the flexibility they need, and companies are responding to that,” she said. But others suggested that companies might also be responding to changes for men, too: Male employees typically no longer have a little woman at home any more to pick up the slack when they work 80 hours a week during the busy season. Their wives are working their own jobs.
“That world as a whole has recognized that they would die out if they didn’t embrace some sort of a balance of life,” Yawman said. When she first started working as a CPA, employers basically said, “Either you work 80 hours a week from January to April or you don’t work here,” she said.
Now some tell employees to expect to work 40 hours during the busy season and less other times, she said.
“Now all the firms have inclusion programs, and women’s leadership programs, and diversity programs. You can’t just say ‘Here’s the deal or don’t bother coming here,’ “ Yawman said.
Not that some companies don’t still try to avoid dealing with diversity. Yawman said she’s had clients ask her to find new employees who aren’t in their childbearing years, but she has had to remind them that is against the law.
Companies generally are changing their culture, Howe said.
“You had a business that is very demanding, high stakes people, working very long hours. Along with that you have a certain tendency to rowdiness, kind of boy humor,” Howe said. “I think there’s a broad awareness that many of those behaviors are things we need to change as a society.”
Employers tend to be more accommodating to employees needing to pick up children and make dinner before logging on from home to continue working, Benison said.
Howe said accounting has become much more welcoming to women this way and finance is moving in that direction, too.
Yawman said options that never existed before are now available.
“In the old days, we didn’t really have the option to meld family and work life. You got to a certain point and you picked one fork in the road or the other,” she said, which meant women who wanted children either had to quit working in the field, or give up on having a family.
“Now you can choose to go down the family-only path, or leave your spouse at home, or the middle,” she said. Workers can step back onto the “fast track,” when they’re ready, she said.
Yawman faced a fork 19 years ago when her second child was born and she was able to make arrangements to share a job with another mother.
Mucenski-Keck said many public accounting firms have recognized the need for this flexibility, citing some that offer paid maternity leave, which is not standard, or a sabbatical after achieving a certain rank.
However, she warned that some offers of flexibility are window dressing for companies that can still present roadblocks for women.
“They offer them the ability to work from home, but that ultimately hinders them, because they work from home,” Mucenski-Keck said. The worker who is out of the office isn’t scoring as many political points at the office as those who have greater facetime with the boss, and therefore may miss out on a promotion.
Yawman agreed that a woman’s career can stall for a while when stepping onto the “mommy track,” but she said that’s better than having no choices, as was common in the past.
However, missing promotions may have a deep impact.
Citigroup Inc. recently shared that it found a 29 percent difference in pay between female employees and male employees, chalking up much of discrepancy to female employees holding lower status in the company. As a result, the company has vowed to start promoting more women, setting a goal of placing women in 40 percent of its vice president and managing director positions.
But even when women are in upper-level positions in finance, they’re still paid less, according to a pay-equity study Finance Executives International recently published. Male chief financial officers earn 1.6 percent more than female CFOs, FEI’s data showed, which is the largest gap among eight sectors the study included.
But for many women, fear that they will not be able to participate fully in family life while working a demanding job still causes them to hesitate when choosing the financial world as a career.
Mucenski-Keck said, “Right, wrong or indifferent, I still field a lot of questions from (female) students about how can you balance work and family. That’s a concern of theirs in college.” She’s never fielded a question like that from a male student. Until she does, there’s more work to do.
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