A Woman’s Place Is in the Firm

Accountancies Ernst & Young, KPMG, and PwC all place in the top 10 in a best-workplaces survey by Working Mother magazine. Where's Deloitte?

Three of the Big Four auditing firms — Ernst & Young, KPMG, and PricewaterhouseCoopers — have ranked among Working Mother magazine’s top-10 list for best places to work for mothers.

Other companies on the top 10 list: Baptist Health South Florida, Booz Allen Hamilton, General Mills, IBM, McGraw-Hill Co., UBS, and Wachovia. Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, however, is conspicuously missing from the list.

Why do accounting firms rate so high? Those that made the list offered some explanations.

“Women want more time — whether to bond with a newborn or adjust to their role as a parent,” Roy Weathers, a partner with the title chief diversity officer at PricewaterhouseCoopers, told the magazine. He said that at the beginning of the year, the firm gave mothers three extra weeks of fully paid maternity leave, which can be used at any time up to one year following a child’s birth or adoption.

James L. Freer, vice chair of people at E&Y, told the magazine that this past year it enhanced its parental leave policy to include six weeks of fully paid leave for primary caregivers, in addition to six weeks of fully paid short-term disability for birthmothers. “The firm also introduced the Working Moms Network to help women make the transition back to work following parental leave,” he said.

KPMG vice chair of human resources Bruce Pfau told the magazine that the firm launched Web-based training for employees and managers this year to create more productive conversations about career development. “We also introduced an interactive website to help staffers identify steps for building more satisfying careers,” he added.

While the three companies certainly will be lauded for their commitment to diversity, some motivation may be due to good old fashioned supply and demand, however.

The Economist recently pointed out that there are never enough skilled or promising accounting people. It noted that baby-boomers in the U.S. are flooding into retirement; in Europe the market is graying; and in India and China the large number of graduates masks low numbers of truly high-quality candidates.

Also, job cuts earlier in the decade have created a shortfall of employees now. And regulatory changes like the Sarbanes-Oxley Act have boosted demand from clients for both accountants and their staffs.

As a result, global accounting firms are directing much of this recruitment at what they deem to be hard-to-find experienced professionals, especially important in the advisory businesses where corporate knowledge is highly valued.

The magazine noted that each of the Big Four wants to promote more women, who make up about half of their recruits, but only a quarter, at best, of their partners. They are offering career breaks and part-time work. “The Big Four are ahead of most in managing talented women,” Sylvia Hewlett, author of the book “Off-Ramps and On-Ramps,” told The Economist.

This is certainly heartening to women who want to enjoy successful careers in finance, but still take time out to raise a family. After all, a CFO survey in June 2006 found that fewer than 10 percent of CFOs at companies in either the Fortune 500 or the Fortune 1,000 were women.

At the controller, treasurer, and tax director levels, the numbers increased to about 20 percent of the Fortune 500.

In June this year, CFO analyzed the relatively better progress of women compared to minorities in corporate finance posts, estimating that 16 percent of Fortune 500 controllers and treasurers were women, for example, while only 4 percent and 6 percent, respectively, were in minority groups. Sixty percent of survey respondents estimated that their finance departments had more female employees than the rest of the company, while in contrast, half said their department lagged the company as a whole in terms of African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American staff.

Meanwhile, CFO noted in 2006, for more than 20 years women have outnumbered men in undergraduate and graduate accounting programs, and women comprise the majority of new hires by public accounting firms. Further, for the past decade they have earned 30 to 40 percent of all MBA degrees awarded.

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