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May 27, 2024

Greater Hartford’s largest accounting firms are increasingly being led by women

HBJ PHOTO | STEVE LASCHEVER Susan Jackson was recently named managing partner of KPMG’s Hartford office.
Greater Hartford accounting firms led by women
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When Susan Jackson took the reins as managing partner at KPMG’s Hartford office in May, she became the fourth woman to lead one of the 10 largest accounting firms in Greater Hartford.

It’s a slow shift in leadership gender balance that’s mirrored on the national stage. It took until 2015 for one of the “Big Four” to be helmed by a woman, when Cathy Engelbert took over as CEO of Deloitte’s U.S. operations. (She’s now the commissioner of the WNBA.)

Globally, when Janet Truncale steps up as CEO of EY later this summer, she will become the first woman at that level.

And while Jackson and other women in the profession say these are all good indications that the historic gender gap in accounting has closed markedly in recent years, they also say there’s more work to be done.

When she started in the late 1980s, Jackson estimates the peers in her hiring class were two-thirds men to one-third women.

“There was still a good amount of women that I started with — but after five or six years, a lot of them were gone,” she said. “I was the first woman to make partner in Hartford, and that was in 1999. So, I think in my growing-up years, the mentors for me were men.”

She says more often now, there’s at least a 50-50 gender balance within new hiring classes, and some are more women than men.

Bonnie Stewart

Bonnie Stewart, CEO of the Connecticut Society of CPAs, says she’s seen the overall gender balance in the profession shift in women’s favor in just the last few years.

“The CPA community now is just slightly over half female,” she said. “Last year, we were 52% females and 48% male. And so with that, you would expect to see more senior-level individuals that are female, and we definitely are with each passing year.”

Nationally, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants’ 2021 Trends report showed that women held 39% of partnership positions in the profession, up from 23% two years previously.

Work-life balance

There are reasons beyond equity why these changes are important. Like most professions, accounting is facing a workforce pipeline crisis as baby boomers retire.

“And there’s more demand now for CPAs than there used to be,” Stewart said — not just at public accounting firms, but also throughout government, municipalities and corporations. “We have much higher demand than we have the number of people right now.”

That means the push for diversity, equity and inclusion in the profession matters as a business case.

So, while people coming into the profession are more likely to be women these days, addressing that mid-career drop off that Jackson saw among her peers is increasingly important.

How can accounting retain women?

“The firm itself, across the country, is very focused on diversity and is very focused on making the career a place that you can stay long term,” Jackson says of KPMG.

That means addressing excessive work hours and providing adequate parental leave, flexible work schedules and general support for work-life balance. And she says in some ways, the experience of COVID may have helped with this.

“You have to work sometimes on the weekends. Like, that is just a reality,” she said. “But now, most people will do that from their house, right? So, if you have to work a Saturday, and you want to go watch your daughter’s dance class or soccer game, that’s okay. You do that, and then you’ll come back and sign on.”

It also means improving mentorship and visibility for women and other diverse candidates.

“When people come in as an intern, they see the room filled with lots of women, lots of women partners, minorities working on their teams,” Jackson said. “It’s not a situation where you don’t see yourself. Everyone, whoever they are, sees themselves in someone else.”

‘Equitable environment’

Part of that mentorship may extend around key professional achievements like passing the CPA exam, where there’s still a distinct achievement gap between men and women.

And it means achieving pay parity.

Susan Martinelli

“I think you’ll see a lot of studies out there that the pay equity gap is closing,” said Susan Martinelli, who has led the Hartford office of accounting and consulting firm RSM for some six years.

She says closing the gap takes conscious effort.

“When you take the bias out of the process, I think that’s really important, but you really need to train people on how to do that too,” Martinelli said.

She says the accounting profession is also driven by clients that want firms to diversify their workforce and management teams.

“Many times in our proposal process even, they’re looking for what are you doing to ensure that you’re creating an equitable environment,” Martinelli says of her clients. “I think it’s a missed opportunity if you also don’t have people in front of them that look like them or see themselves working with you.”

She notes that while gender parity overall is improving, it’s not improving equally in all cases.

“About one in four C-suite leaders are female, but women of color actually are less. It’s about one in 16,” she notes.

Women who do make it into the corner office often foster an improved culture, Martinelli believes, in terms of empathy and emotional intelligence.

“I think women bring a unique perspective,” she said. “I think communication, collaboration, that’s really important.”

It’s a thought echoed by KPMG’s Jackson.

“I’ve always kind of thought that women bring a different tone to it,” she said. “I think you see a lot of empathy and a lot of understanding. I think women look at each other, trying to understand each other’s journey in some ways.”

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