Embracing equity is the call-to-action this International Women’s Day and IMA is proud to be an advocate for women’s advancement in accounting and finance. IMA supports impartial and fair treatment of women in society and works to ensure that resources and opportunities to help them advance in accounting and finance are available. Stemming back to 1919, IMA’s (then called the National Association of Cost Accountants) work in this area included inducting Lena Mendelsohn, CPA, as a charter member when other associations excluded women. IMA helped women forge a path into accounting and finance, which was a predominantly male field at the time. By 1944, IMA had over 200 members who were women.

IMA’s work on behalf of women is part of its larger Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) initiatives. Tangible progress in women’s advancement in the profession is beginning to manifest itself. Today, women make up more than 50% of accounting graduates (according to AICPA’s 2021 Trends report), and 62% of the accounting workforce (according to IMA’s Diversifying U.S. Accounting Talent report). According to the Crist Kolder Associates Volatility Report 2022 which measures the backgrounds and turnover of C-Suite executives in a portfolio of companies from the Fortune 500 and S&P 500, “in 2022, 7.3% of sitting CEOs and 16% of CFOs are women, up from 3.5% and 9.7%, respectively, a decade ago.”

But work still needs to be done to increase representation of women at the most senior levels of the accounting and finance profession. Those who monitor employment trends and women’s advancement in the workforce note the importance of “pipelines of talent” or a “strong bench” of female employees ready to take on increasing levels of responsibility which will ultimately lead to a seat at the executive table.

A significant event affecting that pipeline has been the COVID-19 pandemic. A March 2021 Deloitte Global survey of working women found that they believed their “opportunities for advancement decelerated” during the pandemic. A lack of work/life integration was cited as the top issue for them as well as a lack of flexible working arrangements and long hours that did not comport with the routine they needed to take care of household responsibilities. Women’s challenges during the pandemic are more evident when labor drop-out rates are considered. According to the National Women’s Law Center, “Of the 1.1 million workers who dropped out of the U.S. labor force in September 2020, 80% were women, a statistic with clear diversity, equity, and inclusion implications.” 

The growing concern over how the pandemic negatively affected women’s career progression has spurred workplace changes, as employers increasingly realize that to retain and develop top female talent requires a new approach to work. The 2022 Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) Employee Benefits Survey found that 63% of employers offer most of their workers the opportunity to adopt a hybrid work model, where the employee works some portion of their time remotely. This move to expand flexibility in the workplace benefits both men and women, but is particularly important for women’s advancement. According to the Accounting MOVE Project, “the new career fluid work culture presents deep currents for growth for women and firms in the accounting and advisory profession.”

As women re-enter the workforce after the turbulence of the pandemic (according to Pew, as of May 2022, the number of women with jobs was higher than at any other point since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic), achieving senior roles in accounting and finance may now become a reality.  Pew states, “The pandemic is likely to bring about changes in the post-pandemic workplace that open up the potential for much reduced gender inequality in the labor market.”

Reducing gender inequality in the workplace should result in more and more women ascending to senior leadership roles. Sheryl Estrada, a writer for Fortune magazine’s CFO Daily supplement, interviewed Shawn Cole, president of Cowen Partners Executive Search, about the slight uptick in women holding CFO roles this year. Cole said, “I believe the reason we are seeing more female CFOs now is that for years, companies have invested in hiring women at levels that allow for leadership development…Now, there is a bench of qualified candidates. We now see more female VPs we and others can pull from. Additionally, internal promotions are a risk on an untested, unproven executive, but companies are taking that risk and they are taking it increasingly on women and people of color – because they have a bench to draw from.”

This International Women’s Day, IMA is continuing to work towards ensuring a strong bench of female talent. In April, IMA will holds its annual Women’s Leadership Summit in which those working in finance and accounting (as well as students) can come together and share perspectives on the issues and challenges impeding women’s advancement (i.e. work/life balance, bias in the workplace, and skills development). IMA will also continue to dive deep into DE&I research as part of its commitment to achieving equity for women. Today, it is clear that embracing equity is possible and within reach for the accounting and finance profession.  

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