Plante Moran’s internal policies and practices have helped the firm be recognized as a Best Public Accounting Firm for Women in 2013 by the Accounting MOVE Project.
The Accounting MOVE Project examines the reasons behind why many women CPAs leave the accounting industry for careers in other fields and what firms are doing to change the prevailing trend — and the findings likely go beyond the accounting profession.
The project surveyed 440 women accountants, with a third of those women holding senior staff or manager-level positions.
Retaining women CPAs
The top four retention factors for women senior staff: firm culture, relationships with co-workers, relationships with clients and technical challenge.
The top four retention factors for women managers: work-life balance, relationships with co-workers, firm culture and variety of career options.
The top four barriers to advancement: work-life issues remain problematic, lack of female role models, subtle cultural factors discourage women and a need for an earlier emphasis on business development.
Plante Moran Grand Rapids and women CPAs
So what is Plante Moran's Grand Rapids office doing to overcome industry barriers and create an environment that keeps women CPAs on a path to partnership?
“Based upon discussions with many women throughout the firm, I would say our very generous parental leave of absence policy is something that helps us retain and attract people,” said Dori Drayton, partner at Plante Moran's Grand Rapids office. “It allows staff to take up to six months off after the birth of a child and that is through a combination of paid and unpaid leave.”
The leave is available to both mothers and fathers.
“In addition to that, we have a very liberal paid time-off policy of up to five weeks each year, and then staff have an opportunity to buy up to two additional weeks at a discounted rate. Seven weeks vacation for a year is pretty substantial.”
Drayton said that Plante Moran began offering flexible work schedules years before it became a more accepted practice in the U.S.
Flexible schedules include a variety of tailored work arrangements, along with the more traditional telecommuting and condensed work weeks.
“The nice thing about that is that staff, while working on a reduced or a non-traditional schedule, can still be on track for promotions and partnership.”
Drayton also credited the familial atmosphere the firm has cultivated.
“The core of why it’s so different at Plante Moran has a lot to do with our culture,” she noted. “We really feel like we are a family at Plante Moran, and there is a lot of teamwork involved.
“So, for example, if my child is sick, and I need to be at home, people will pick up the ball for me at work without any questions," she said. "If a parent or someone becomes ill and someone needs to be gone, I have a colleague that is in that situation right now, we all pick up the ball, and our clients understand, and the people at the firm understand.”
Plante Moran offers several formal and informal mentorship programs.
One of the most helpful, according to Drayton, is a buddy system that was created by the firm’s Personal Tightrope Action Committee.
“When I started with the firm, I was pregnant and the PTA committee had provided me with a buddy, a person in my office who, within the past few years, had had a child and so they were very familiar with not only the firm's policies related to leave, but just things that you need someone to ask questions of when you are about to become a mom," she said.
Drayton was also provided with a binder developed by the firm and filled with resources for a new parent, including things she said she hadn’t yet considered.
Drayton pointed out what a simple thing the binder was, but also how significant it was for her as an expectant mother.
“I just can’t say enough about that. Personally, it was such a help to me,” she said.
A new program that was implemented last year is the Women in Leadership program, which is a formal mentoring program.
Women as partners
One of the program’s strategies is to increase the visibility of the firm’s women leaders and demystify the path to management and partnership.
“I think one of the challenges is this misconception, or feeling, that they just don’t think they can be a partner and have a family and have balance,” Drayton explained. “Spending some informal time with staff and explaining to them that as a partner we still have healthy social lives, and we spend a lot of time with our family. There is this perception that you spend 12 hours a day working as a partner, and we need to change that perception.”
In fact, Drayton admitted that she used to be one of the women who thought partnership was out of the question.
She said that she now spends time with women who are apprehensive about focusing on that path, discussing what balance means to them and how they can achieve it.
She said she uses the analogy of a full plate to explain that things can be re-arranged to accommodate other things and that things will come on and off of that plate as advancement occurs.
The point is reiterated by the Accounting MOVE Project survey, “Many women report they were surprised to find, upon becoming a partner, that they had newfound freedom to re-align business, personal and family responsibilities.”
“Firms will retain women when they matrix work, life and economic independence goals," according to the project. "For example, conversations about career advancement also need to set expectations for increasing compensation and scenarios for work-life management.”
Plante Moran currently has 276 partners across the firm: 50, or 18 percent, are female, while 226, or 82 percent are men.
The firm’s total workforce is more than 50 percent female.