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Figuring out how to retain women in the accounting field

The key to retaining rising women leaders in the public accounting field is for companies to stay flexible.

As more women who have children enter the field, firms are showing more of a willingness to be accommodating and offer opportunities for adjustable schedules, said Maureen Thomson, a CPA, CVA, and CFFA, and manager of special services at Concannon Miller & Co. PC of Bethlehem.

“Otherwise, I think women are a little discouraged to go back. Right now, with technology, it’s a lot easier and I think firms can identify the value of that flexibility.”

One reason women and men leave the profession is the initial burn-out period that often accompanies auditing – but auditing is just one aspect of the accounting field, said Thomson.

As an accountant who specializes in forensic accounting and business valuation, Thomson said she is never working on the same thing every day and finds herself using more critical thinking skills.

“It’s kind of like solving a puzzle,” said Thomson.

Thomson, who works at a firm that has about 100 employees, has seen a lot more women entering the field. She said that a few decades ago it was more of a male-dominated field. But today, women comprise closer to 50 percent of employees at many accounting firms.

The number of female accountants has risen as a whole in Pennsylvania, according to Michael Colgan, executive director and CEO of the Philadelphia-based Pennsylvania Institute of Certified Public Accountants (PICPA).

A little more than 30 percent of the organization’s members are women, said Colgan. According to PICPA membership figures, the number of women in the accounting field rose about 43 percent compared to 10 years ago.

In total, this translates to more than 6,500 women out of 21,000 members throughout the state, said Colgan. In 2009, the organization had about 5,700 women in the profession, a figure that rose to 6,500 in 2012.

In the Lehigh Valley, about 30.7 percent or 277 of the PICPA members are women out of a total of 902 members, said Colgan.

In student groups in the Lehigh Valley, the numbers are closer to 50/50, said Colgan.

Younger demographics enjoy greater flexibility with work hours and telecommuting… and technology has a huge impact, said Colgan.

“More women are looking at accounting as a viable career opportunity,” said Colgan.

It’s a field that’s expected to grow, with 200,000 new jobs to be created in the accounting field on the national level over the next 10 years.

The growth is partly due to the diversity of positions that accounting offers, including education, government and industry sectors of the economy.

When Denise Hozza started working as an accountant about 13 years ago, she had three small children and worked in the audit field. During the summers, she had more flexibility to be with her children. She’s now a senior manager at Concannon Miller, as well as a certified public accountant and certified valuation analyst – and she has more flexibility in choosing her hours.

“Our work doesn’t stop during tax season at all,” said Hozza. “We often work from home.”

She enjoys having this flexibility and believes this is the key to retaining women in the accounting field.

In the public accounting field however, it can be difficult to keep people during the child-rearing years, said Loretta Tubiello-Harr, CPA/ABV, CVA and principal of Tubiello-Harr & Associates LLC of Coopersburg.

“We lose a lot of women in the public accounting field,” said Tubiello-Harr. “In the world of technology, it helps, but the issue is the deadlines that are driven by the IRS or the banks, it’s very difficult to not get some individuals working overtime.”

Tubiello-Harr has 10 employees at her firm; all but two are women.

Since women are often the caregivers, what tends to happens in the certified public accounting arena is that they stay until they get certified and then go work in a field that’s more nine to five until the child-rearing years are over, said Tubiello-Harr.

However, when that happens, when they re-enter the field, you find less and less women as partners because they’ve missed that time, she said.

“As a woman, you really have to prove yourself,” said Cheri Hutchinson Freeh, CPA, CGMA and principal of Hutchinson, Gillahan & Freeh PC of Quakertown. “The good old boys club still exists.”

She remembers a time when she had a playpen in her office and brought her young children to work.

Now, as a partner, she said her company strives to be family-friendly and her staff has 13 people, including herself and two partners.

As the immediate past president of PICPA, Freeh said she remembers a time during her lengthy accounting career where she hit a wall.

But serving on boards and doing volunteer work for nonprofits can help women gain a sense of accomplishment and serve them well in their careers, she added.

“What I found for myself is don’t give up – and stay focused,” said Freeh.

Brian Pedersen
Reporter Brian Pedersen covers construction, development, warehousing and real estate and keeps you up to date on the changing landscape of our community. He can be reached at brianp@lvb.com or 610-807-9619, ext. 4108.

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