Diversity, Equity, Belonging and Inclusion

How women can overcome the accounting partnership barrier

7 min read
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Over half of accounting professionals are women. However, they are significantly underrepresented in partnership positions, especially in larger accounting firms. BIPOC women are even less likely to be partners. The field has recognized this disparity in public accounting firms worldwide for at least 20 years now, but there are still more male partners than women. So why do CPA firms still have more male partners than female partners, and how can women overcome the accounting partnership barrier?

What percentage of accounting partners are women?

In the United States, women accounted for about 57 percent of accountants and auditors in 2023. What’s more, women outnumber men in associate's, bachelor's, master's, and doctorate accounting programs: in 2020, about 54 percent of graduates with Master of Accountancy degrees were female, while 67 percent of doctoral graduates were women. Given the number of women enrolled in college accounting programs, it seems likely that women will continue to have over half of the available accounting positions in the near future. 

About 50 percent of new hires in the accounting field are female, so women are entering the profession at about the same rate as men. But still, when you look at the percentage of female accounting partners versus males, public accounting firms have far more partners who are men than women. In fact, according to recent reports, 61 percent of partners in CPA firms identify as male, while only 39 percent identify as female. And at firms with more than 100 CPAs, women only account for 21 percent of partners. (The opposite is true for smaller firms, though. About 43 percent of the partners in firms with two to 10 CPAs are women. 


Why are fewer accounting partners women? 

Although studies have pointed out persistent issues with gender equity in accounting leadership, it’s challenging to determine the exact reason. However, researchers suggest that the disparities could include a range of reasons. For example, women can lack opportunities to acquire the specialized leadership skills to make partner. Other women leave CPA firms earlier than men or choose not to pursue leadership positions because the long work hours might pull them away from their families. 

And finally, women are more likely to take “post-senior” management positions instead of partnerships. 

Women in post-senior manager positions 

Recent reports indicate that "post-senior manager" roles within CPA firms may affect the percentage of female partnership promotions. These "step beyond" senior management roles, such as "Director," do not grant equity in the form; instead, they are employee-type roles. Specifically, partners have a direct financial stake in a firm. They also have voting rights and participate in planning strategies for the firm’s future. In other words, partnership positions have high risk-to-reward ratios. On the other hand, director positions may require high levels of expertise and may have good salaries, but directors are salaried staff. 

The number of companies offering post-senior management positions has significantly increased in the past ten years. Plus, women are more likely to have post-senior positions, whereas men are more likely to progress up to partner. 

How Can Women Overcome the Accounting Partnership Barrier? 

In the accounting industry, it is well documented that women are underrepresented as partners. However, women can take steps to ensure they receive the leadership recognition they deserve. Senior executives at CPA firms also have a big role to play to increase the diversity of the accounting field. 

Find a Good Female Mentor Who Are Partners 

First, women should look for role models who have successfully navigated the accounting workplace. After all, women are more likely to have essential family roles outside the office, such as being mothers and caregivers for elderly parents. When women feel like they have a relatable network at their firm, they feel more incentivized to seek leadership positions. For example, many women have found mentorship and sponsorship programs very beneficial. According to an AICPA study, about 78 percent of women in mentorship programs feel the training and connections they make help to advance their careers. 

Pursue Leadership Training – Even in Early Career 

Second, women should be diligent about acquiring the leadership training they need to reach partner levels successfully. In fact, women who engage in specialized leadership training are more likely to reach partner levels than women who don’t take training beyond their required annual CPE credits. 

Learn to Communicate Leadership Skills 

Third, women must practice self-promotion, even early in their careers. Even though women are usually considered to be better communicators than men, they don’t always do an excellent job of proclaiming their accomplishments. And it’s important to remember that leadership skills go beyond technical accounting skills. So, beyond promoting their technical skills, women must communicate other “soft skills” that leaders embrace. 

It's All About the Right Fit 

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, women should find a firm that fits their core values well. For instance, some women pass the CPA Exam, get their CPA license, and take a position at a firm that doesn’t allow them to meet their personal goals. They go through all the effort it takes to become a CPA, then quit after a few years because they don’t feel respected or valued. Therefore, finding the right position in the right firm with the right mentors is essential. Women should think about their personal values (like work-life balances) and seek the firms that will nourish—do detract from—those values. 

Encouraging Women’s Success in the Accounting Field 

Ultimately, encouraging women to pursue leadership roles like partner depends on appreciating and honoring their contributions to the accounting field. To that end, existing leaders in the accounting industry—men and women alike—must encourage women by recognizing their accomplishments and offering them chances for growth.

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