From leadership issues to tips on having conversations about hard topics, this year’s Women’s Leadership Forum on April 27 is structured for women in the accounting and finance profession, and has something for attendees at any level of career development. For a sneak peak at this year’s event, we spoke with Women’s Leadership Forum co-chairs Meredith Johnson, director at Burr Pilger Mayer, and Becky O’Malley, senior manager at BDO USA, LLP, about how the agenda came together, the state of women in the accounting and finance profession and takeaways attendees can expect.

How would you describe the theme of this year’s Women’s Leadership Forum?

O’Malley: There isn’t a specific theme, but the common elements are communication and being an advocate for yourself. We also talked about what’s happened during the past year, such as the #MeToo movement, and from there developed our program.
Johnson: What we heard from participants is that one of their favorite parts is the opportunity to network with other women, so we wanted a conference that would allow an opportunity to network in an informal setting, as well as have more structured conversations around common topics of interests.

How are CPA firms doing when it comes to initiatives that help advance women? Are there initiatives in place at your firms?

O’Malley: At BDO, there is a strong women’s initiative. It’s a good place for women to share experiences, ask for advice and take advantage of mentoring opportunities.
Johnson: We have a formal women’s initiative that includes leadership training, as well as mentorship/sponsorship opportunities for women in various levels of career development at the firm. One of the things that has been incredibly popular, not just for women, is our flex time, which is for everyone and is not something that you have to request—it’s part of your day to day work habits. We’re focused on keeping good people and that’s something that has helped us work with new parents—men and women—as they come back to work from taking maternity or paternity leave.

For firms that may not have such a program in place, what advice do you have about where they should begin or elements that need to be included?

Johnson: For firms that are interested in starting something, but aren’t quite sure where to begin, the information they might glean from exit interviews with firm employees can give them an idea of areas that may have caused the most career friction for those employees. They can then address those common reasons people give for leaving the firm or the profession. Also, small things like internal surveys about what policies people find restrictive versus freeing can go a long way.

Talk to us a bit about your career paths. Were there—or are there—mentors who helped you?

O’Malley: Throughout my career, I’ve had mentors that I’ve sought and people who became my mentors by way of working together; it developed from working with them and getting to know them—we clicked, so it developed organically.
Johnson: Mentoring is such an interesting word. It describes a certain type of relationship—one that involves seeking advice from somebody, who often might be outside of your organization. One of things that came up as a topic from pervious years of the Women’s Leadership Forum is the difference between mentors, sponsors and coaches. As you develop in your career, you can have someone who is a sponsor for you and helping put your name out there and suggest you for leadership opportunities, which is just as important as having someone to go to for general advice. The mentoring relationship is one that can happen by happenstance, but generally not because you’re told to be somebody’s mentor. It’s nice to have a lot of smaller conversations that may turn into longer conversations and potentially, a mentoring relationship.

What are some challenges women face in the accounting and finance profession?

O’Malley: Finding that balance and having to give up one thing to take care of something else, which is always evolving. For example my life last year was very different than this year based on my workload and what’s going on with kids. Having to be on your toes and flexible—all the time—is definitely a challenge.
Johnson: I wouldn’t say this is unique to women, though women may feel it more acutely, but the accounting profession tends to require a lot of demanding hours and work that is often done on a deadline. And those kinds of deadline-driven projects tend to burn people out. Having an opportunity to deal with stress and figure out how to deal with managing your schedule through all phases of your career, and having the tools to help cope with this demanding profession are some big challenges.

Are there steps firms can take to lessen—or remove—those challenges?

O’Malley: It really needs to be a cultural shift. At the end of day, we have to get the work done, but having firms recognize that we have those challenges is a big plus—and having that message conveyed from the top says a lot.
Johnson: Developing a culture where people feel comfortable saying they need assistance, whether it’s with a short-term project, where they need more people, or longer-term shifts in their work priorities and career direction. Creating a culture where someone feels comfortable talking to their team or higher ups at the firm about what it is that isn’t working for them is very helpful. It could keep somebody from leaving because they feel they can only get something they need someplace else—and it helps people feel valued to know that their requests are being listened to.

What are some hurdles you had to overcome and how did you do it?

O’Malley: Balancing the demands at work and family life. There have been instances where I’ve had to make tough decisions and sacrifices that have certainly impacted my career. Communication is key and I’ve been fortunate to have great managers and mentors that helped me find solutions to allow me to be successful at my job, as well as take care of the needs of my family.
Johnson: In dealing with some clients earlier in my career, they weren’t accustomed to seeing a woman with expertise in finance. It’s been necessary and much appreciated to recruit male allies to be a part of the client service team to work with certain clients who may not be as comfortable working with women. That’s something you have to figure out about your clients and potential clients, and determine workarounds.

This year’s Women’s Leadership Forum includes a session titled, “What if #MeToo Happens to You?” Without giving too much away, what takeaways can attendees expect from the session?

O’Malley: The idea of the session is to educate conference participants that if you are ever in that situation, we hope to give you information and guidance about what are your rights, what are the responsibilities of firm and what you can do to protect yourself in that situation.

People aren’t often eager to jump into the hard issues. How can firms start the discussion around this issue to raise awareness?

O’Malley: Firms need to have a way for employees to communicate—whether it’s an anonymous hotline or some other way to be able to voice concerns in a manner where they don’t feel threatened.
Johnson: The tone at top certainly matters and letting everyone in the organization know that the organization has a stance on gender equity and that there are official policies, and also that there is a shift, if it needs to be made, to be a more opening and welcoming environment. You need people in leadership to say those things. Having that cultural decision to raise awareness and provide people a comfortable place where they feel willing to share without any repercussions is really important

Still, not everything changes right away. You can’t just say, “OK, we’re going to hold a firm-wide meeting and everyone raise your hand and explain some area where you feel you feel like you’ve been slighted.” Not everyone feels comfortable, even in a small-group meeting, discussing issues, so provide different communication methods to let people feel like they’ve been heard.

Why do you recommend someone attend the Women’s Leadership Forum?

O’Malley: It’s a great day, it’s a great conference, it’s a great way to network with different women in the accounting and finance profession and learn about professional skillsets that your company might not typically offer. I get a lot out of it each year.
Johnson: It’s a personal and professional investment. There are tools that you can use immediately at work that can be helpful in your leadership development, but there are also intangible benefits, like making the connection with other women in the profession and discussing issues you have in common or finding inspiration in something someone else is doing.