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Women’s Growth in Accounting Slow, But Ongoing

By Meg Killian, Vice President - Member Relations

March is Women’s History Month, and to commemorate it the PICPA has asked some of our female members to share their personal stories, professional expertise, and other insights on our CPA Now blog all month long.

PICPA's Women's History MonthLet’s kick off our month-long celebration with a little timeline on the history on women in the accounting profession.

The Early Trailblazers
It may come as a surprise that women have been performing accounting-related jobs for centuries. While they were eligible to become CPAs since the turn of the last century, few women could attain the necessary work experience because most accounting firms would not hire them.

  • 1899 – Christine Ross of New York was the first woman to receive a CPA certificate.
  • 1924 – There were 50 female CPAs in the USA.
  • 1933 – It grew to a whopping 100 female CPAs.
  • 1940 – 1 percent of CPAs were female.

War & Peace
As with many other industries, WWII created an opportunity for women to enter the accounting profession in large numbers.

  • 1950 – There were 600 female CPAs nationwide.

It was progress, but it took a world war to make it happen. Unfortunately, research shows that it was driven by economic necessity and did not result in lasting attitudinal changes. For many accounting firms, hiring practices and compensation policies reverted back to prewar status once more men returned to the workforce.

Women’s Liberation
It took until the 1970s and 1980s – and the significant social changes that emerged from those decades – for more notable progress to occur. The gender pay gap was exposed, and most of the Big Eight firms developed maternity leave policies.

  • 1970 – 25 percent of auditors and accountants were female.
  • 1989 – 38 percent of auditors and accountants were female.
  • 1998 – Olivia Kirtley of Kentucky became the first female chair of the AICPA.
  • 1999 – 24 percent of PICPA membership were female.
Christy Uffelman Presentation

The Pittsburgh Chapter Women in Accounting Committee hosted Christy Uffelman, whose interactive presentation "Nice Girls Don't Brag (Do They?)" teaches women how to break through the glass ceiling.

It will come as no surprise to many of you that as late as the early 1990s there were still many barriers for women in the profession. A survey published in the 1991 issue of the Pennsylvania CPA Journal revealed that most women thought the “glass ceiling” still existed.

  • 2004 – Susan Howe became the first woman PICPA president. (You’ll hear from her later this month!)
  • 2006 – 27 percent of PICPA members were female.
Leadership Wanted  

A report published by the PCAOB in 2014 showed that women represented about 50 percent of new CPAs in the accounting profession for the past 20 years, but only 19 percent of partners in CPA firms nationwide were women. PICPA’s own research has shown that there is a large gender gap when it comes to the partner track. Business and industry isn’t doing much better, with women representing only 11 percent of CFOs at Fortune 500 companies.

Work-life balance, the desire for flexibility, and weighing family obligations against long-term career goals have all been identified as factors that continue to hinder women’s ascension to leadership positions in the profession. A recent AICPA study showed that smaller accounting firms are seeing the biggest increase in the number of female partners.

  • 2013 – 35 percent of Pennsylvania CPAs were female.
  • 2015 – Two of the Big Four accounting firms hire female CEOs: Cathy Engelbert becomes CEO of Deloitte and Lynne Doughtie becomes CEO of KPMG.
  • 2016 – 30 percent of PICPA members and 49 percent of PICPA student affiliates are female.

The next decade will certainly bring major demographic shifts, and continued progress will be driven partially by economic factors. Firm culture changes, more women role models and leaders, and an increased awareness of career deterrents will hopefully drive significant changes in attitudes as well. The glass ceiling appears to be lifting slowly, and perhaps by the end of this decade it will just be an awning?

Below is the PICPA coverage on CPA Now featuring the Women of PICPA in honor of Women’s History Month:

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