Women's Great Strides in Tax Profession Reflect Desire to Align With Clients' Progress

Kate Barton, Americas Vice Chair – Tax Services, Ernst & Young, discusses the benefits of mentoring and sponsorship in helping women leaders advance.

by Kate Barton, Americas Vice Chair – Tax Services, Ernst & Young


In October 2012, I spoke at a Tax Coalition luncheon held near the U.S. Capitol about my experiences in rising to a leadership position in the tax practice of a Big Four professional-services firm. The Tax Coalition is an association of female tax officials from two dozen Fortune 100 companies, lobbying firms, trade associations and Congress.

I figured I didn't need to lecture this esteemed audience on how to succeed in business because they were already high achievers. Still, my talk quickly became a dialogue, and I was fascinated that the conversation repeatedly turned to issues such as pay equity, work-life integration, inclusiveness and glass ceilings. They were especially interested in how to mentor and sponsor the next generation of women entering the field.

It's notable that these issues are so top-of-mind for even the most accomplished women in tax. I've been in tax for 28 years and have spent my entire career at Ernst & Young LLP. During this time, I have witnessed significant progress for women within our firm and among our clients, particularly as workforces became more flexible and inclusive. But we still have a lot to do. Now, professional-services organizations like ours face the challenge of elevating our best women to the top echelons of our business so we are aligned with clients who are doing the same.

Women's Advancement Wins in Tax and Beyond

Women have made great strides in business. The number of working women rose to 66.2 million in 2009 from 18.4 million in 1950, according to the AFL-CIO. Women in the U.S. have launched businesses at twice the rate of men for the past 25 years, and their growth in employment and revenues have consistently outpaced the broader economy, according to the National Women's Business Council. The number of women-run businesses generating at least $1 million in revenues grew by 2,000 percent between 1977 and 2002. In some countries, women may soon comprise about 40 percent of boardrooms. Studies also show that companies with a higher share of women at the top delivered stronger organizational and financial performance.

Women are playing a bigger role in the tax and accounting professions, too. There are now two national societies for women accountants: the American Society of Women Accountants and the American Woman's Society of Certified Public Accountants. Meanwhile, the number of women promoted to middle-management and senior-executive positions in the tax profession grew by 15 percent and 19 percent, respectively, between 2002 and 2009, according to a 2010 study. At Ernst & Young LLP, the number of women in tax in the U.S. promoted to Principal or Partner increased nearly 53 percent in the past year.

Businesses understand that the diversity women bring to the workplace inspires more creativity and new ways of thinking—driving business success in unexpected ways. In a global environment like ours, diversity and inclusiveness are strategically important. The more you look like your clients or customers, the more likely you are to succeed. This is especially true in tax, which is attracting more women than ever.

Recently, much of the discussion around women in business has revolved around the book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg.

Ernst & Young's Global Vice Chair – Public Policy Beth Brooke recently shared a transformational anecdote about "leaning in." She relayed how it took a male colleague to articulate a position previously expressed by three women before Ernst & Young's Global Chairman and CEO Jim Turley agreed with it. "He heard the women, but he listened to the man—and yet had no idea he had done so," Beth wrote, sharing that she later pulled him aside to respectfully discuss what she observed. As a result of her "leaning in" to have this tough conversation, Jim now shares this "aha!" moment publicly to illustrate the importance of inclusive leadership.

Most recently, Maria Pinelli, Ernst & Young's Global Vice Chair – Strategic Growth Markets, shared her "Lean In" story. She helped to establish Ernst & Young's Entrepreneurial Winning Women™ program because related awards seemed to recognize "grey-haired men only."

How Mentors and Sponsors Will Perpetuate This Progress

These stories illustrate why I spend so much time talking with my Ernst & Young colleagues and in outside business groups about leadership, and specifically about mentoring and sponsoring women.

Mentoring is critical to business. I tell people that, on one hand, you should always be reaching up the career ladder. On the other, you should be reaching down to lift others up. Sponsorship involves a higher level of commitment. Women in leading roles in business have an opportunity to influence the advancement of other women in their field. This is also true for other underrepresented populations, including ethnic minorities. Investing in others is an investment in your business.

As I fielded questions at the Tax Coalition from these top-tier professional women, it struck me that while they all came from different organizations, they were already lifting each other up. There were nods of agreement as a young newlywed confessed she feared being "mommy-tracked" after having a baby and a veteran tax lobbyist admitted her frustration at being passed over for a promotion.

Seeing an opportunity, I outlined the key difference between mentorship and sponsorship. Now that more women are in a position to be a sponsor, we should seize the opportunity to wield our hard-earned influence, and start cultivating the next generation of female leaders. All women, the tax profession and businesses in general, will be better for it.

Kate Barton is the Ernst & Young global organization's Americas Vice Chair – Tax Services, which consists of approximately 9,400 tax professionals at Ernst & Young member firms serving our clients in North, South and Central America and in Israel.

*The views and opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of Ernst & Young.

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