Law and accounting grads are consistently over 50% female, yet the percentage of female firm owners has just reached 20%, up from 19% several years ago.
It's easy to blame the mommy track for high female turnover. Or maybe discrimination. As a fix, firm owners and consultants strive to "retain women" and to make women more "promotable." To this end, they create women's support groups and development programs, both centered on the "unique issues that women face."
Despite the good intentions, I believe these women-oriented programs miss the mark. In fact, they hurt more than help. I'll explain why I think that, explore what it is that firms are actually trying to accomplish, and offer up some alternate solutions.
The Women's-Issue Myth
When you look at the topics of these women-only programs, you'll see that every issue or situation they address exists for men, too.
All the issues named as "women's issues"—save one—are actually just people issues.
The one unique-to-women issue? Nursing moms need a comfortable, private room at work in which to pump. Otherwise, men and dads today face the same difficulties—and the same balancing-act challenges—as women and moms.
Please name any other need that only women have in the workplace that they cannot capably see to themselves.
If you'd say that woman aren't as promotable, I'd say hogwash. Women's advancement potential is now no different from men's. Maybe you'd say that partnership isn't very desirable to women. But I know plenty of men who don't want to be owners either.
Both men and women defect from firms at an alarming rate—nearly 85% exit law and public accounting by their fifth year.
And of those who stay, do women actually need different professional skills than men?
Lawyers and accountants of both sexes generally lack management skills. It makes sense since they went to school to learn law or accounting, not management or business development—the themes of most women-oriented education.
Both men and women need additional skills and support. Every entrant into these professions now needs marketing skills. Most need management skills. And some need to become leaders.
Focusing on women's issues in the business world is actually divisive.
Since women's skill needs and life-work balance accommodations aren't unique, claiming they are unique is inaccurate and exclusionary to men. Especially to single dads. And it's insulting to women—as if we're incapable of succeeding without special accommodation or tailored skill development.
To make matters worse, some of these formal programs include wardrobe advice and shopping excursions. As a woman—even one who enjoys fashion—this horrifies me. People are supposed to take such a program seriously?
Yet firm owners feel obligated to support women's or diversity programs or they could appear insensitive. It's why these programs increase in number; a trend that doesn't solve the problem.
These programs widen the gap rather than close it. Divisive indeed.
What Problem Are We Trying to Fix?
We fret over fewer female employees and partners than male so, naturally, we seek to balance the proportion. What's our purpose in having more female leaders? Have we identified the right cause?
Are we worried about discrimination in promoting women?
I'm inside a lot of firms and I don't think that's it. I've not yet encountered a firm that failed to see the strengths that women can bring to the boardroom.
And discrimination isn't just a female problem—it occurs based on all sorts of impressions and biases from appearance (sloppy or sophisticated), personality and style (abrupt or shy), communication ability, education, age, size, race, and religion.
Besides, isn't promoting women primarily to equalize the numbers discrimination, too?
Are we seeking to correct too little diversity?
We know that firms pursue "diversity" to appear more attractive to current employees, certain clients, or future recruits as if to say: "See? Women can advance here!"
Sadly, this, too, misses the mark. When we seek diversity, the purpose should be to achieve diversity of mind—of thought—not quotas related to a person's color or body parts.
Diversity of thinking has to be supported or it ceases.
Interestingly, most firms aren't even prepared to support diversity of thought. To nurture diversity, firms must act on the ideas (the thinking) of their people. But firm leaders tend react defensively to new and different thinking, and often stifle it.
It's a lot easier to "look" diverse in a photo or statistically than to actually be diverse. Diversity is cultural, and we aren't there yet. Even when we fill quotas. (This will need to be another blog post.)
Diversity will occur organically when we empower people.
What Makes People Powerful?
These are very sensitive subjects and I've been pondering this post for years.
I'm publishing it now because something really nice happened this month. I was named among 25 accomplished people as "Most Powerful Women in Accounting" by CPA Practice Advisor magazine.
It's truly an honor to be recognized among peers for thought leadership, and as a role model. I owe an extra debt of gratitude to CPA Practice Advisor for pulling these people together because reading the award recipients' insights has inspired me and I see important themes.
But I'll let you in on a secret. I feel squeamish about the "women" part of this recognition. Imagine the uproar if we recognized "Most Powerful Men in Accounting."
"Powerful" is a pretty amazing word, and I think herein lies a key to success for men and women alike.
Powerful—to me—is the sense that nothing can hold us back from what we want to accomplish.
Some of the other Most Powerful Women honorees seem to agree with this perspective (not necessarily the rest of my post).
CPA Practice Advisor posed questions to the honorees about perceived limitations to women in advancement and opportunity. Their answers unapologetically reflect their power.
Dawn Brolin, to the question, "Do you think being a woman in the accounting profession has made career advancement more challenging than it might have been for a male in the same situation?" answered: "As a strong woman, I would have to say no."
Stacy Kildal says: "I have honestly, not for one minute of my life, ever considered that being a woman would ever make advancement in my career more challenging. My gender doesn’t have anything to do with my ability..."
Geni Whitehouse said: "I didn’t feel that I was given unequal treatment at any time in my career. The accounting profession rewards hard work and results."
And honoree Gail Perry tells firm leaders: "...my advice would be that the firm regard its female employees just as it would any employee—judge on merit, not gender. Don't provide preferential treatment based on gender..."
Is it coincidence that "powerful" women don't see femaleness as a limitation? I think not.
What they all have in common is personal drive. Personal drive is power.
To those who say women face advancement limitations, I say nonsense. Being a business woman in no way hinders me if I don't let it. Similarly, being a parent in no way hinders me unless I let it.
Of course it wasn't always this way. Initially, it was indisputably difficult for women to advance. But due to the courageous first, the promotion path is well-forged. I commend and thank those brave women. Their efforts paid off.
And the pendulum has now swung. With the increasing number of dual-income families and single-parent households, men have significant responsibilities at home and face the same struggles as their female counterparts. We're all in the same boat.
Women simply don't need special treatment to be successful in business. To be successful requires personal drive.
If women (or men) want advancement, then advance!
If women (or men) don't like the culture in their firm, then change it. Or leave.
If women (or men) don't want to be owners in a predominantly male firm, then start a new one. It's easier than ever to do, and many people are.
Perpetuating the Myth
"Women's issues" are falsely named. Certainly everyone benefits from support and skill development.
We mustn't keep the "women's issue" mantra going. Things that we continually call attention to become our realities, even if they aren't real.
Morgan Freeman's interview with Mike Wallace provides perspective on the problem of paying too much attention to distinctions between people:
It's time to neutralize the entire discussion of gender in the workplace. How do we end women's issues?
How about we just stop talking about it.