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Don't Rule Out The Big 5 In Your Job Search:
CPAs Can Be Mothers Too!

by Rebekah Sheely

You finally made it! It's your senior year, and its time to begin the job search process. You've heard the "horror stories" about the long hours required by the Big 5 CPA accounting firms. You're reluctant to enter into that kind of work environment because of plans to start a family in the near future - or you may already have family responsibilities. Although, you may be tempted to avoid interviewing with the Big 5, don't sell yourself short. Corporate cultures are changing all over- especially within public accounting - and you need to be aware of those changes in order to make the best decision regarding the all-important first job.

Long Hours Are A Requirement:

Long hours are the norm at most large public accounting firms. It is not uncommon for entry-level workers to put in a minimum of 56 to 60 hours a week during the "busy" season which lasts anywhere from four to six months.1 In addition, the hours typically increase as the accountant works her way up the promotion ladder. While the pay at the Big 5 firms is considerably higher, many accountants (both male and female) have decided the benefits of working at an international CPA firm don't outweigh the cost of long hours on the job. For this reason, many women entering the work force for the first time don't even consider interviewing with the Big 5 firms. This decision most certainly will have a long-term career impact.

The Glass Ceiling Persists:

The Big 5 accounting firms experience a turnover rate of over 23 percent a year and that number is even higher for their female accountants.2 These statistics help explain why there aren't more women at upper management levels. Women make up a mere 3 percent of the top corporate officers in the companies that comprise the Fortune 500.3 While the number of women partners in the Big 5 CPA firms is higher, it is still much lower than it should be. Several explanations for this phenomenon have been offered in the popular press. One is that women don't play the "game" as well as men.4 For example, female workers are thought to be too serious in the workplace and to be chronically tardy for meetings. Two, women have not been as successful as men because they are afraid to use their natural "feminine" skills such as empathy and collaboration.5 Since women tend to be less aggressive on the job, they need to rely on other strengths to get ahead.

Peggy Orenstein in her book Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Kids, Love and Life in a Half-Changed World 6offers a fresh and thoughtful explanation for why women fail to climb the corporate ladder in large numbers. Orenstein believes that younger women limit their opportunities from the very start. They make career choices that are based on the idea that they will be the primary caregiver to their children. As such, they seek out more flexible careers in positions that are less demanding. When the children do come, it seems only reasonable that they (and not their husbands) be the ones to change jobs or go part-time - both of which slow down the advancement process. She states that women in their 20's see few role models who "have it all" and conclude that their wish for both a family and a career is unattainable. While it may be impossible to "have it all," women need not lower their career goals; instead, they need to modify them.
The Big 5 Strive To Be Family-Friendly:

The Big 5 firms realized in the early '90's that if they wanted to keep and attract talented female professionals, changes would need to be made in the work environment. Most large public accounting firms have had long-standing policies that require continual progression towards partnership. Those employees not deemed to be "partner material" were not allowed to remain in lower-level positions, but instead were forced out. Such a policy was known as an "up or out" policy. Leaders of the Big 5 CPA firms agree that an "up or out" philosophy is no longer viable. Instead, the firms have created a new paradigm that includes innovative career development models and compensation structures as well as opportunities for professionals to have long-term careers with the firms without necessarily becoming partners. To ensure the success of the multiple career path model, the Big 5 firms offer a number of family-friendly programs including regular and emergency resource and referral services for children's needs (including child care), resource and referral for elder care, adoption assistance, family needs-related leaves of absence, and flexible work arrangements (including telecommuting, alternative or reduced schedules, and job sharing). These programs are typically available to all employees but are especially attractive to women.

Women CPAs Demand Shorter Work Weeks:

Women now represent nearly half of public accounting professionals at the lower levels -the stage where employees are most likely to begin families. It's no wonder that more and more women CPAs are taking advantage of the various family-friendly programs offered by their employers to achieve a balance between family and career demands. Reduced workload arrangements tend to be the most popular type of flexible work arrangement. A recent survey of practicing CPAs, which was sponsored by the AICPA Women and Family Issues Executive Committee, indicated that 80 percent of the women professionals taking advantage of family-friendly programs chose to decrease the number of hours worked.7 On average, they reported working a five-day, 40-hour workweek during the busy season. While 40 hours a week is not usually considered a reduced workload, it is considerably less than the almost six-day, 52-hour workweek of those respondents who were not carrying a reduced workload. The largest reduction in hours came during the non-busy season, when the reduced-workload employees reported working an average of 24.5 hours over a 3.4-day workweek.

A Better Work Arrangement:

Flexible work arrangements do seem to help create work-family balance but they do not eliminate all conflict. A common workplace myth is that taking advantage of a flexible work arrangement will negatively affect salary, promotions, relationships with colleagues, and work performance. Women professionals often neglect to take advantage of flexible work arrangements for fear that they will not be perceived as being committed to their careers. The results of the previously mentioned survey suggest that negative consequences in terms of salaries and promotions were less serious than anticipated by those CPAs affected. While those women taking advantage of flexible work arrangements were treated differently than full-time employees, receiving lower raises and fewer promotions (on average), the treatment was not nearly as harsh as they had expected. These women appeared to be satisfied with their treatment because only 14% of those taking advantage of flexible work arrangements reported that they were likely to leave in the long run as compared to 24% of the traditional full-time CPAs. 8
The firms are eager to retain their women professionals. Aware that women typically have had a harder time finding mentors in the male-oriented culture of most firms, the Big 5 are taking steps to make it easier for women to find mentors and to build networking opportunities. For example, Ernst & Young LLP has developed the Women's ACCESS (ACCElerating Shared Success) Program, and Deloitte & Touche LLP has the Initiative for the Retention and Advancement of Women. Arthur Andersen, KPMG, and PriceWaterhouse Coopers have similar programs.

Flexible Work Arrangements Are Here To Stay:

The Big 5 firms are committed to making flexible work arrangements successful. The leaders of each of the Big 5 have acknowledged that the historically male culture of the firms must go. And while they realize that institutional support in the form of programs is important for cultural change to take place, it is even more important for the firm leaders to actively support the programs. In a 1996 article, Philip A. Laskawy of Ernst & Young, LLP, stated, "We don't see these efforts in terms of extra cost but in terms of a necessary investment to provide the best possible client service with the best people."9 But don't let these words mislead the reader; the firms are very much aware of cost - especially the high cost of turnover. Ernst &Young LLP estimates that the cost of hiring and replacing an employee is 150 percent of an individual's annual salary .10 In fact, James E. Copeland , Jr., CEO of Deloitte & Touche LLP, credits his firm's 30% growth rate in 1999 not to better marketing or better products but to lower turnover. Copeland applauded Deloitte & Touche's program to improve the retention and advancement of women employees by noting that in 1993 the firm had 88 women partners and that in 1999, the total was 245.11

How To Make These Programs Work For You:

The first step to making flexible work arrangements work for you is to choose a firm that offers family-friendly programs. Don't hesitate to pick up the phone and call the human resources department of any firm that you have an interest in or visit their websites. The websites of each of the Big 5 can be accessed through http://cpateam.com/accounting-big6firms.htm. After you land the job, you'll want to take certain steps to ensure that the programs are beneficial to you. Almer and Kaplan12 suggest the following:

  • Build strong relationships with superiors and become known as a valuable and trustworthy employee before you request a flexible work arrangement.
  • Determine how to make the arrangement successful for the firm and answer the question, "What's in it for my colleagues?" When you approach your superior, bring a written plan that outlines how you can still perform your job functions without burdening others in the office.
  • Recognize that while a flexible work arrangement can facilitate work-family balance, some degree of conflict will always be a reality.

Peggy Orenstein in her book Flux elaborates further on this last point. She suggests that women need to give up the "Perfect Mother" syndrome - the idea that a "good" mother is completely responsible for managing family life. Public accounting tends to attract ambitious individuals who put a lot of pressure on themselves to do their best at work and at home. If you're worried about your efforts at balancing work and family, seek feedback from your supervisor. Your supervisor knows better than anyone whether your performance is measuring up. Orenstein also suggests that women need to allow the men in their lives to be equal partners at home. "Until men fully understand what it means to straddle two worlds, women who pursue 'life balance' will continue to sacrifice career advancement." Women entering the work force today have opportunities for a better work-family balance than those of women professionals only ten years ago. While it's still not possible to "have it all," it may be possible to achieve "balance."

Rebekah Sheely is an assistant professor at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

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