How far is far enough when it comes to promoting women’s advancement in the workplace?

The accounting profession may be a barometer for U.S. businesses at large, making great strides for gender equality in some areas, while lagging in key metrics. The American Institute of CPAs (AICPA), for example, reports women comprise 60.9 percent of all accountants and auditors in the United States, yet account for less than 20 percent of partners in U.S. CPA firms.

Of course, the public accounting profession, as many others, is working to close the gender inequality gap. One professional services firm, Baker Tilly Virchow Krause, LLP (Baker Tilly), has identified an approach for addressing this critical and persistent industry issue. A top 15 national accounting and advisory firm, Baker Tilly challenged its organization’s status quo in 2007 by creating the GROW (Growth and Retention of Women) initiative. Since then, the firm has worked systemically to advance its women leaders.

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From 2011 to 2014, Baker Tilly was recognized all four years as a “Best Accounting Firm for Women” by the American Society of Women Accountants/American Woman’s Society of CPAs. From 2013 to 2015, the firm increased the percentage of women who hold company committee assignments from 17 percent to 31 percent. This year, 27 percent of Baker Tilly’s professionals promoted to partner were women.

So, what defines the approach? How does an organization achieve its stated aim of a commitment to the recruitment, development, and retention of talented women professionals? And, more importantly, is the company you work for — or want to work for — one of them? Here are Baker Tilly’s tips on engendering a workplace for the next wave of female leaders.

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1. Secure commitment from the top

Firms that are achieving gender parity understand that cultural shifts begin at the top and are only successful when leadership is fully engaged in change. Senior management must champion gender equality initiatives in order to drive programming throughout the organization.

The GROW committee at Baker Tilly includes members of the organization’s leadership team to ensure this top-level exposure. It has also identified local GROW champions, “on-the-ground” liaisons who are helping to execute strategic accountability goals in each of the firm’s offices across the country.

How do you gain senior management’s attention, much less advocacy, for programs without a short-term financial impact? With ample research to back the assertion, companies like Baker Tilly recognize that diversity is a significant competitive differentiator.

“From the start, our approach has been that gender balance is the right thing and a strategic imperative for our firm’s long-term success,” Baker Tilly’s Chairman and CEO Alan Whitman said. “There is a powerful business case for promoting women into leadership positions. Studies show that companies with diverse executive boards enjoy higher earnings and return on equity — and we know how important it is that our workforce reflect an increasingly diverse client base. Inclusive leadership helps us gain and retain the brightest talent and grow our client relationships, ultimately leading to a positive impact on the bottom line.”

2. Create meaningful programming

While policies that are supportive to work-life balance (such as flexible work arrangements and enhanced parental leave) can be important components to many women’s development programs, companies have ample opportunities to push diversity initiatives far beyond these issues.

“GROW has had a far-reaching effect on our organization’s culture,” Kim Herlitzka, principal of Baker Tilly’s search and staffing practice and GROW committee chair, said. “It is a springboard for leadership training, strategic networking, professional development, and career advocacy programs benefitting both women and men. It has empowered new ideas and new directions for professionals to connect, learn and excel at local and national levels.

3. Measure results

Tracking performance in the advancement of women professionals within an organization is a hallmark of a robust gender equality program. Typical metrics can include the presence of women in leadership positions, comparative salary levels, promotions, and more.

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Baker Tilly produces a GROW annual report to publish its results as well as surveys its employees for feedback. In its most recent employee engagement survey, 84 percent of employees said they believe Baker Tilly promotes the growth and advancement of women in the firm.

“With the success of GROW, we’ve had the opportunity to refine the way we implement diversity programs with a coherent, systematic approach that increases buy-in, encourages change, and solidifies adoption by measuring progress and celebrating successes firm wide,” Whitman said.

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