By Kathy Jensen, Partner at CST Group
As baby boomers begin to retire, and the need for diversity in the workforce continues to rise, the role women play in business has become extremely important to the growth and sustainability of organizations worldwide.
According to an AICPA 2013 report, for the last 20 years women have represented about 50% of new CPAs in the accounting profession. While the amount of women entering the traditionally male dominated profession has improved significantly, today, women account for only 19% of partners in CPA firms nationwide.
So you might be thinking to yourself, how did these women get to where they are today? How can I achieve success in my career? And, am I on the right track?
As a partner at one of the DC metro region’s leading certified public accounting firms, CST Group, I will share with you my journey to the top, and offer actionable best practices for other women who are looking to achieve success in male dominated industries.
My Early Days
My first job after passing the CPA exam was with one of the Big 4 accounting firms in Washington D.C. My career started out just like everyone else in this profession. I worked as an associate for two years, paid my dues, and was eventually promoted to senior associate, and then manager. However, once I got married, my career path changed, as my husband’s job was transferred back up to Connecticut (where I’m originally from). In Connecticut I chose to make the transition from working at a large public accounting firm, to a small privately owned company. At first I was terrified, as all of my experience had been working with large corporations, but I soon realized that this was the best opportunity to expand my skill set. And I was right. I quickly learned how to perform various tax and audit services that I had never had an opportunity to work on before.
After six years, I returned to the public sector, joining another Big 4 company. My experience this time around was different because I had young children at home, and I working part-time—which most people believe to be a death sentence for a woman’s career. Despite that common belief, I was successful at juggling both—being a mom and an active CPA—and my career continued to excel. I joined CST Group in the summer of 2012 as a Senior Manager, and recently was named partner.
While there were highs and lows in my career, I want women to know that they can have it all—a successful career and family. Below are key takeaways that all young professionals should be aware of whether they’re starting their careers, or trying to reach the next level.
Find a mentor.
Once you have found a job, the first step in building a successful career is looking for the right mentor. Finding someone who is like-minded, but has more experience, is an extremely valuable asset. A mentor has gone through almost everything you’re currently experiencing as you start your career, and will continue to experience as it progresses. The right mentor will also be able to offer you “free” expertise and guidance.
Mentors can also share valuable insight into workplace politics. This knowledge is particularly important if you have specific work-related questions or concerns and don’t know which senior leader to talk to. Likewise, mentors are the best advocates for their mentees. For instance, if you’re up for promotion, having a tough time at work, or want to transition to another department, they can speak up on your behalf.
Historically, women have been plagued with the reputation that they’re the “weaker” sex. While women are climbing the ranks in the workforce at exponential rates, there are many women who have a more passive attitude. But what I’ve learned throughout my career is that if you want to be taken seriously and gain the respect of your male colleagues, you need to speak up.
Whether it’s in a meeting with a client or your team, if you have a good idea, speak up. This principle also holds true if you disagree with a certain idea, strategy or tactic being presented. To address this effectively, explain why you don’t think it will be effective, and then make a recommendation that you think will be a strong alternative. This way, you’re not coming off as aloof, but as a strong team player.
In regards to salary discrepancies between males and females, women are consistently being paid less for the same jobs. According to the United States Census Bureau, women make only 78 cents for every dollar a man makes. While there are many factors contributing to the gender pay gap, for young professionals it’s often due to that lack of confidence and fear of advocating for oneself. Money is an awkward conversation to have in general, and since women tend to be less aggressive by nature, they’re more willing to accept a lower salary versus a male colleague.
This is where the power of being a smarter negotiator comes into play. Using the “Think I, Talk We” approach, from Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, has led to more successful negotiations. Sandberg states that women should always go into a negotiation with a clear sense of what you want and why you want it, while also keeping in mind who you’re talking to and why you’re valuable to them.
Another strategy that can help women overcome pay gaps is to push for promotions early on. Unfortunately, there’s still a negative perception that once a woman has a child, their work performance will automatically suffer. Whether it’s because they have to leave early to pick up their child from school, or take them to an appointment, women are often considered to be less productive, and therefore less valuable, if they have children. According to Payscale, “women’s pay growth stops outpacing men’s at around 30, which is when college-educated women typically start having children.”
While it’s not possible for all women to secure a senior leadership position by the age of 30, they can overcome this barrier by showing that their home life has no impact on their performance at work. As long you’re consistently meet deadlines, producing quality work, and maintaining positive relationships with your clients and colleagues, there’s no reason why your career needs to take a hit.
Channel Your Strengths and Weaknesses.
Women tend to have higher emotional intelligence scores than men. As a result, those women are more self-aware, have greater listening skills, and have more compassion. While some people might not see the advantages to this, it can prove to be an extremely valuable asset especially when you’re creating client relationships. For example, some clients prefer a hard business mentality, while others require a softer, handholding approach. Which means you have an advantage over the men who find it difficult to show compassion or empathy, particularly in the office.
This isn’t to say that you’re always going to be able to keep your emotions in check. When a woman makes a mistake, they tend to get upset or dwell on it, whereas men often have an easier time moving on. Your career is a constant learning curve. You’re going to make mistakes, it’s only human, but it’s how you pick yourself up and learn from those mistakes that will help you evolve into a true leader.
Keeping yourself humble is another important key to success. Good leaders understand their strengths and their weaknesses. Young people usually think that they have to prove themselves for people to take them seriously. This is often not the case. If anything, it looks like you’re trying too hard or have a big ego. As you’re building your career it’s important to ask questions when you don’t understand something, learn from others, and be approachable. Successful leaders know that they don’t have the answers to everything. They’re constantly practicing self-awareness, and they too rely on others to help strengthen their weaknesses.
While there could be an entire rulebook about how women can really “have it all” – achieving the perfect work/life balance—it’s actually quite simple. If you can practice self-confidence, articulate your ideas effectively, embrace your emotional intelligence, and recognize your strengths and work to improve your weaknesses, then you will become a valuable asset to your company and achieve success in your career.
Kathy Jensen joined CST Group in 2012 as Senior Manager. She has more than 20 year of experience in public accounting and specializes in tax planning and compliance for government contractors, commercial real estate, start-ups, small businesses, professional services firms, and entities with multi-state operations. She also works closely with high-net-worth individuals.