By Guest Blogger Susan E. S. Howe, CPA, CGMA, principal at Howe Advisory, Tax, and Business Consulting
As a woman of the baby boom generation, I’ve experienced a number of “firsts” in my life. I’m the first in my family to attend college. I was one of the first women to be promoted to an executive level at my firm, and I was the first executive woman to retire from my firm’s Philadelphia office. One of my biggest firsts was being elected the first woman president of the PICPA.
I started a bit late on my path to becoming a CPA. I had an idea as early as high school that accounting might be a good career path for me, but I ended up majoring in economics in college. After a series of accounting-related jobs, I finally started on the path to becoming a CPA by joining Arthur Young (predecessor of EY) at age 27. Within three years I had completed my MBA, thereby picking up the extra accounting credit hours I needed to become certified, had passed the exam, and had become a CPA. At age 30, I was finally a CPA and a member of the PICPA.
As a young CPA at EY, I was willing and able to become involved in PICPA committee activities. I volunteered for activities that caught my interest, and I enjoyed the opportunities to network with my fellow CPAs and other professionals. I reaped the benefits of honing my speaking and leadership skills. Because I was a willing volunteer, I gained more opportunities to do different things within the PICPA, including serving on the Pennsylvania CPA Journal Editorial Board and heading up the Image Committee at its outset. I became president of the Greater Philadelphia Chapter, and a few years later I was nominated to become the first woman elected PICPA president.
While every woman’s path and experiences are unique, I’ll share a few of the lessons I have learned from being a woman in a profession that was heavily male-dominated until recent years.
It can be equal parts uncomfortable and exhilarating to be the “first” anyone in a situation. It’s hard to win the trust and confidence of people who think and act differently than you, but if you want to be a leader, it’s critical to figure out how to do it. People tend to be most comfortable dealing with those whom they perceive to be like them. Try to put people at ease, and don’t be thin-skinned. If people learn that you will listen to their points of view and that you have more in common than that which separates you, most will accept you as a colleague and a leader.
Not everyone will be comfortable with the idea of a woman or someone of an ethnic minority in a leadership position. Attitudes change slowly. Accept it and deal with it. See the previous paragraph about not being thin-skinned.
If you do your best all the time, success will usually follow. However, in addition to hard work, you’ll need mentors and boosters to succeed. Build your network wisely, and learn to ask for what you want and need. This can be hard for many people, women in particular, but having sponsors and mentors to advance your cause is absolutely critical to success in the profession.
Finally, be nice but be firm. This can be a hard balance. There’s a way to get your point across without being dismissed for being too shrill or pushy. A lot of that has to do with remaining calm and objective. Don’t be a pushover and let your voice be buried, but always try to use logic and reason to carry your argument. Women especially are judged harshly for anger and aggression, so try to keep those in check and be assertive using logic and reason.
Above all, show up and get involved! You won’t be sorry.
Susan E. S. Howe, CPA, CGMA, is a principal at Howe Advisory, Tax, and Business Consulting, specializing in quality and risk management, tax accounting and compliance, tax practice strategy, to name a few. In addition to being PICPA’s first female president, she is also the first chair of PICPA’s Fiscal Responsibility Task Force and served on AICPA’s Council and its Financial Literacy Commission.