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Women in Finance: Fight or Flight?

For women in accounting and finance, is it better to fight to reach the top or fly solo?

From unconscious (and conscious) bias to smaller paychecks to sexual harassment, there is no doubt that many women see career growth as an up-hill battle, full of frustrating roadblocks and underestimation. It can be so exasperating, in fact, that leaving can seem like the best solution. But are women actually better off starting their own businesses? And what about the organizations they leave behind?

“It was easier for me to jump out to create my own path than it was to wait for someone to sponsor me or mentor me... And I think part of it is they're used to being with the guys, so it's just easier to be with the guys,” said Jody Padar, author of From Success to Significance: Transforming the Traditional CPA Model.

According to The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) Report for Women 2016/17, 274 million women were already running their own businesses across 74 economies and more women than men (about 20 percent more) cite opportunity as the primary reason for venturing into business.

Jacquelyn Tracy left her senior manager role at KPMG to create Mandel & Tracy, which touts itself as a “women-owned accounting firm.” For Tracy, starting her own business has allowed her and her partner to be purposeful about the kinds of clients they’re willing to take on. Those clients are often other women.  “My business partner is a woman, we are a woman-run firm,” she told an audience at the Accounting & Finance show in New York City. “It gives us a great cache in my professional market when people are looking to do business with women. Part of making the decision to go out on our own was the ability to make our own decisions, make our own choices, what types of clients we wanted to deal with, what we want to charge for doing that work, how we’re going to serve our clients, how much work we’re going to do, and what our schedules will be. Both my business partner and I work a flex-schedule.”

Fellow panelist Stacy Kildal chose to start her own full-service bookkeeping, payroll and technology consulting company, Kildal Services, after realizing she was stuck in a “dead-end job.” For her, flexibility and servicing other women were major motivators. “I was a bookkeeper at a plumbing company… I had a daughter who was in daycare for 10 hours a week and my boss actually at the time… he’s the one who really actually pushed me to start my own business and I finally was like ‘My daughter’s in daycare 10 hours a day, this is ridiculous. I also have a huge problem with authority, I'm really sick of being told what to do’ and I just decided.”

Kildal’s transition wasn’t as simple as that, however. After joining the ProAdvisor program and becoming certified, she continued to work full-time at her bookkeeping job and began taking on part-time clients. She advised others, “Do it at night, do it on the weekends… I would work Saturdays and I would work Sundays and I was honest with my clients and telling them, ‘this is my side gig, I'm trying to build my client base so that I can start my own business and they were amazingly supportive and so wonderful about it. And then you get to a point where you think, ‘I can’t take on anymore clients, I'm either going to have to not take on anymore clients or I'm going to have to quit my job and that’s what I did …and I’ve never looked back.”

Clearly, women facing limited opportunities for growth or inflexible schedules are considering and sometimes acting on the impulse to leave. But what about the organizations they leave behind? As their most ambitious female employees exit, will they step up and make the changes necessary to not only attract and retain women, but to encourage their advancement? For EY Partner Jamila Abston, sticking it out has felt like its own path to progress. “In our practice there are about 600 advisory partners for banks and asset managers. Of those 600 there are 3 black women partners. So that is a half of a percent. There are maybe either to ten percent women partners and I think that’s actually good for EY, I’m proud of us.”

“What I’ll say is the space is competitive and the reason I’m staying right now is, I’m a fairly young partner, the exposure that I'm getting with the firm brand is magnificent. I'm from Mobile, Alabama. I’m a southern girl. I'm working with the largest asset managers in the world. That is important to me. It’s valuable to me. So if I have to kind of grind through some of the craziness, and help them make change because I am doing that, right? And I'm willing to do that for a little while longer but it’s definitely something I think about and I do evaluate regularly so we’ll see. Time will tell.”