When I first started in the accounting industry 20 years ago, I didn’t necessarily think about any potential differences that might exist in opportunities for men and women in the profession. Moss Adams recruited 50 percent women out of college then, and we continue to average those numbers today.
But the number was disproportionately lower when it came to our management teams and partners, and it remains lower today. This was something the accounting industry at the time was beginning to pay attention to, which was great.
In 2008, Moss Adams put together an advisory steering committee, which I served on for five years, to provide thought leadership on gender diversity within the firm. We worked closely with human resources to chart the course of what was to become our Forum W initiative while actively advocating for women in each of our regions and offices.
A top priority was to figure out why women were leaving the industry at a faster pace than men and weren’t making it through to partner at the same rate. When we first started tracking women’s success at Moss Adams, we had 18 percent female partners, despite half of our recruits being women.
We looked at why it mattered to us as a firm and looked at a lot of research on diversity. It ends up that diversity broadens our talent pool, improves client relations, decreases recruiting costs, and is a significant contributor to profitability and beneficial to decision making. Having women in management makes sense as a business case.
So how do we get women to stay and thrive? It was interesting to look at this research and understand better how women operate. Positive feedback is much more important to women’s happiness and feeds their desire to stay long term, for example.
We believed we could affect change by being more mindful of these differences as a firm. This meant formalizing relationships as mentors, coaches, and sponsors, and developing women’s networking to accommodate differences in how men and women integrate and build their social and professional networks—think golf.
The research also helped us understand some of the factors at play that push or pull women out of the industry. Whether it was internal (not providing enough opportunities as a firm or addressing barriers that women might face) or external (balancing a family with a professional life), we could at least have some control over alleviating the internal factors and put systems in place to help women balance their personal and professional lives. Moss Adams prioritizes having both.
Today, I’m happy to report that we’re at 26 percent women partners. Launched in 2008, the Forum W initiative has great success in attracting, retaining, and advancing talented women. There’s a very strong emphasis on open dialogue regarding career goals and experiences, leveraging relationships to benefit individual growth, connecting those who are developing with those who already have achieved, and providing ample growth opportunities for our women.
While we’re proud of the progress we continue to make as a firm, Dick Fohn, our president and COO, reiterated at a town hall-style meeting recently that we still have a long way to go.
I feel incredibly lucky to work for a firm that’s led by a management team that believes strongly in the Forum W initiative. They’re making decisions on who leads offices and industry groups and that top-down buy-in effects change much quicker. It sets the tone that this is important and aligns the firm’s perspective much more easily.
Women helping women
I have three pieces of advice for other women. The most important is for women to be advocates for each other. Find your group, tribe, circle—and support those women, whether as a sounding board, mentor, coach, or sponsor.
We’re lucky at Moss Adams in that we automatically have coaches assigned to us. I’ve been fortunate to work with great partners and mentors during my career, mostly in an informal way. As a firm, we’re focusing on sponsoring, which consists of being a vocal advocate for our people. The roles of mentor, coach, and sponsor can be held by the same person or by different people. It’s a team effort.
I work with the telecom industry, which tends to be dominated by men. I’ve been lucky in my career to have a number of partners—again, mostly men—who served as coaches and sponsors for me. These were active working relationships that consisted of feedback and being able to learn firsthand by observing them, which was incredibly valuable.
The second piece of advice is to find your voice. Sheryl Sandberg’s book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” talks about sitting at the table and raising your hand—I can’t emphasize how important this is. We contribute to more diverse and balanced dialogue by being involved and voicing our opinion.
And last, but far from least: Recognize that you have to build your own career path to be happy long term. There is a constant push and pull between being a professional woman, a mother, and a wife and between work and home. Find creative ways to approach that friction and remember that there’s no wrong way.
For me, I worked part time for seven years after I had my first son, who’s now a freshman in college. I then switched from a flexible schedule that enabled me to telecommute but work full time for two years to a part-time schedule and back again. So nearly half of my 20-year career was some form of a flexible work arrangement. This worked for me, and I still was able to advance in my career and stay on track to make partner.
While many accounting firms are beginning to focus on these types of initiatives, I think Moss Adams offers a great balance between having a rewarding career and personal life. There is a reason why we consistently get voted one of the nation’s best firms for women accountants by the Accounting MOVE Project, a joint study by the American Society of Women Accountants and the American Women’s Society of Certified Public Accountants, among other recognitions and awards. We’re truly a frontrunner for firms our size because we focused on it early and made it a priority.
Forum W is an incredible benefit. As a firm, we’re striving to be purposeful and mindful of making wise decisions as we advocate for women to be successful and recognize that it may require differences in approach and tools. It’s a win-win situation on so many levels—for women, Moss Adams, our clients, and for the industry as a whole.
Cheri Burnham has focused in tax planning and compliance services for corporate entities and individuals since 1995, providing tax planning and compliance as well as consulting services. A graduate of Gonzaga University, she works in the Moss Adams Spokane office and can be reached at (509) 777-0122 or email@example.com.
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