Women In Accounting

Challenging work, more flexible workplaces attract a growing number. Toss out your old notion of an accountant in a green visor with a mountain of calculator paper burying his feet. Today’s accountant is social, paperless and in heels. But while women are making head roads into the industry, there is still a lack of women in the top positions. According to the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), accounting students are more likely to be women than men, and genders share the pie in the work force, but men still dominate the upper echelon.

DENVER WOMAN asked four of Denver’s top female accounting partners for their insight into the discrepancy, and they shared with us their stories on how they climbed the ranks of the ever-changing industry and how woman are changing the game of accounting.

When it came time to choose an elective her sophomore year in high school, Alison Dunnebecke opted out of the more popular home ec class and registered for accounting. It was love at first calculation. “I liked the fact that everything was orderly and precise,” she says. “It made sense to me.” Following an accounting path through college and specializing in tax for her master’s degree, she recalls her first job being a big awakening as to how blurred textbook black-and-white accounting became once human situations were involved. “People hate taxes in general, so they want to pay their fair share and nothing more,” she says. “But what they are really looking for are ways to be educated. I help them solve an issue, give them peace of mind, and make sure that they are comfortable with the answer. That’s much more important to me than anything else.” Dunnebecke considers herself an advocate for her clients and their businesses, guiding them through risk assessment based on tax ramifications, but also considering employee relations, human resources and business decisions. “I provide all the information and let them decide which way to go. The deeper you can make that relationship, the more comprehensive answers you can give them,” she says.

Her client and colleague relationships have been a strong motivator for Dunnebecke to stay at Hein & Associates for 22 years. Some of her clients have been with her from the start, celebrating with her when she became partner at the firm. But continuously serving those clients and advancing her career while having children and raising a family was not something about which the industry at the time was very accommodating. Men had historically set the precedent for success, and the goal was to rise to the top as fast as possible. She recalls that women tried to downplay their gender in the male-dominated workplace when she first started, even dressing like men and sporting bow ties with collared shirts. When Dunnebecke had complications with her first pregnancy, her doctor told her to either quit her job or lose the baby. “So I quit because I didn’t think I had the option to do anything else,” she says. It was actually the male partners at the time who suggested an alternative part-time work arrangement for her instead of quitting, and she was the first in the firm to be offered this opportunity.

“The biggest thing for me was the fact that I had a choice. It relieved the stress big time,” she recalls. “As a woman, I feel like we’re pulled in so many different directions, and this way I felt like no one was getting shortchanged.” Alternative work arrangements were counter-cultural in the mid-‘90s, but today Dunnebecke says the attitude shift in the workplace is widely accepted and allows women to climb the corporate ladder in a very competitive industry at their own pace. As a mentor to the next generation of female accountants, she lets them know that firms are willing to work with them. “If you’re good at what you do, we’ll figure out a way to keep you,” she says. “Your career may slow down some, but you don’t have to leave completely and then try to come back. All you do is ramp it back up when you’re ready. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity shouldn’t be sacrificed for your career.” Alternative work schedules also benefit employers, she says, as they eliminate training of new staff and forcing clients to constantly switch advisors.

Dunnebecke believes other major changes to tax law and accounting may be on the horizon, fueled by the current economic climate. She says this is not the worst economic situation she has ever seen, but she feels it is the most unstable. “I don’t remember ever feeling so uncertain,” she says. “How do we go forward when we don’t know what’s coming?” Constantly learning and keeping up with the changes as they come is Dunnebecke’s top priority to be prepared for the future, and she says it is also one of the most exciting aspects of her job. “The law is always changing. The way people do business is always changing. With new high-tech companies come new ideas and new strategy,” she says. “There will be a lot of opportunity from that change; we just have to figure out how to leverage off it.”

In 1988, fresh accounting graduate Melissa Hooley landed her first job with the famed firm Arthur Andersen in Cincinnati. While it was an exciting career opportunity, Hooley says she was more impressed by the huge firm’s willingness to be flexible with a young professional mom’s needs. “I had a 3-year-old daughter, and I needed balance,” she recalls. “They allowed me to work from home when I needed to and made time for me to go to my daughter’s school events. I even brought her to the office on weekends, and they had a kids’ club on Saturdays during the busy season.” In 1993 Hooley transferred to Arthur Andersen’s Denver office with her young family. She has fond memories of her firm’s family atmosphere, where success was measured by job performance, not how many hours she clocked in. When the giant firm crashed with the Enron scandal in 2002, Hooley says she was shocked that Arthur Andersen actually closed its doors on her and 85,000 other employees.

Her resilience kicked in, and Hooley embraced the time to reflect on the crossroads of her career. She stopped working for the following six months and toured colleges all over the country with her daughter. The break from accounting led her to the conclusion that she missed her job, particularly helping her clients. In 2003 she joined Anton Collins Mitchell, which is part of the national BDO Seidman network, and two years later became the firm’s first female partner. Hooley says moving to a smaller firm gave her the family atmosphere she loved at her first job, while still having access to national training and resources. “I can grow with my clients,” she explains. “I can give them a small, local solution, and take it to a national or international solution when they need it.” Hooley has embraced the national community of accounting on a wider scale as well. She feeds her passion for continuous learning and keeping up with the constant changes in the profession by sitting on the AICPA’s expert panel and teaching at conferences around the country. “I love working with other professionals who specialize in the same area as I do and deal with the same real situations. We come up with and determine good guidance and answers,” she says.

Sharing that knowledge with the next generation of accountants is also very rewarding for Hooley. “A very important part of my job is being involved in helping to shape the future of the industry,” she says. “Helping people build their careers and watching them grow in the profession and become successful has been really fun. It’s so important that young professionals get involved so they have a voice.” She reaches out to help younger women strategize through challenging times when they may feel that the demands are too much to stay in the industry. She encourages those she mentors to ask for what they need to be successful. You can make it work, she advises them, you just have to be creative. “You have to look at your career in terms of a marathon, not a sprint,” she explains. “It is particularly important for women to look at their careers from a long-term perspective and pace themselves. In public accounting women have a lot more flexibility than they realize, and they need to use that to grow throughout their lives.”

Her experience over the years has taught her to prioritize, and she integrates this skill by scheduling personal commitments right alongside business demands and honoring them just as she would any other appointment. “It’s a constant challenge keeping balance with your family, career, health, etc. But if you are proactive, you can do it,” she says. Hooley points out that just as your personal life fluctuates, so does the industry. “Accounting is steady, but it’s not recession proof,” she says. “We struggle with our clients through the good and bad times. The work doesn’t go away, but it changes, and it can be more challenging.” Looking back at her own crossroads after Arthur Andersen’s closing, she foresees a positive outcome to the current economic climate. “It’s made everyone reassess how they are doing and pushes them to be more efficient and effective,” Hooley says. “We were all kind of coasting for a while, and we weren’t challenged by external and world economics. Now we are forced to revisit our priorities from personal all the way through our business.”

Kim Higgins always knew she wanted to be in accounting. Finding a niche that allows her to do so while helping clients she personally respects and supports keeps her passionate about auditing 21 years after she first became partner at a smaller regional firm. She works primarily with government and nonprofits, helping support child welfare, social services and other federal programs that help less fortunate people. “I think I’m a frustrated social worker at heart,” she says, joking that auditors are financial doctors who do need some bedside manner. What makes her niche unique is that government and nonprofit auditing is a requirement, a necessary evil as she describes it: “Auditors issue opinions on financial info, and to do that we have to get in and look at everything. We do bother you, and you have to wait on us hand and foot. It’s up to you to make that positive or negative. Good communication can make anything palatable.” She also says that the public is more connected and interested in where government and nonprofits spend the public’s money, which results in increased accountability.

“I have learned a lot about government arenas, and I have a respect for the job that they do with the money they have. I also like that they pay their bills on time, and they live within their means. You can’t always say that about large public traded companies,” she says. According to Higgins the new hot word in the business these days is “transparency.” She expects fraud theft to become more prevalent as more people fall into financial devastation. “When the environment changes, auditing changes,” she says. “We need to be looking very closely. The next couple of years could be crazy! It’s sad, but that’s our job.” The forensic aspect of auditing is something that Higgins says is a great challenge and a rush, knowing that she can uncover crimes hidden in numbers. “It’s kind of like a mystery,” she says. Recent advancements in technology are an exciting new piece of the puzzle. New data extraction software, which her office owns and uses, allows her to think of a scenario, and the software can search for specific data to back it up. “This could be through thousands and thousands of transactions,” she explains. “When I started, I was searching through books 3 feet wide. Now the software can find that needle in the haystack. And it’s paperless,” she says.

A fraud department teaches her firm how to think like a crook, training them how fraud could be rationalized and how crimes could be covered up. “The good news for us is that most crooks are bad crooks,” Higgins says. She also applies her love of puzzles to the balancing act of work and personal life as a whole. “I look at life as juggling balls,” she says, “and I don’t take no very easily. If someone says no, I show them how it can be a yes. “The biggest challenge in the industry is teaching the younger generation, especially women, to understand that you have priorities. Your career is important, but you can have a life. There are so many old-school CPAs that think you need to owe your soul to the company store.” Being passionate about what you love and the people you work with is top priority for Higgins. In support of a friend and mentor at Eide Bailly who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer, Higgins has teamed up with three other colleagues to walk the three-day, 60- mile Susan G. Komen Walk for the Cure and raise $10,000 this summer.

In a profession where the expectation is to know a lot about everything, Carol Lewis has found great success in knowing everything about one thing. With a background in a wide array of accounting, from tax to auditing, she had educated herself and focused her career to become one of the nation’s experts and the firm leader of valuation services within BKD’s national forensics and valuation services consulting group. For those new to accounting, business valuation is, in short, estimating the value of a business. For example, a client might be selling his business to his daughter, and he needs to know what his business is worth. Using extensive research and methodology Lewis and her team will pinpoint that figure. Lewis teases that her second area of expertise in forensic accounting and litigation support is the “sexier” side of her job, though a smaller aspect. Forensic accounting investigates fraud by utilizing accounting, auditing and investigative skills. Litigation support includes expert testimony in front of a judge or a jury. Lewis’ particular niche of expertise is so specialized that her team members are located in various cities across five states. She works from a self-described virtual office and sees her team members face-to-face only two or three times a year. She credits advancements in technology for the opportunity to connect with such a widespread team, preferably by phone, though she jokes that her team wishes she would use e-mail more.

“Even though we are so far apart, one of the favorite aspects of my job is developing the staff,” Lewis says. “In our consulting group you have to be the best of the best. To do that you have to learn from the ground up, and we are willing to bring our staff to that point. I love the opportunity to work with younger people in the profession.” But tailoring your knowledge to be “an inch wide and a mile deep,” as Lewis describes it, is a career path that requires perseverance and dedication. “It takes a special type of character to be willing to learn something so specific,” she says. “But the reward is that your career brings out your strongest characteristics.” Testifying before a jury requires a very specific type of character, someone who can be extremely focused and dedicated before a case goes to trial and also have a competitive edge on the stand, she says. “It adds a whole other element of stress to an already stressful job,” she says, but it is very exciting. “There is nothing as satisfying as being able to get off the stand and know you’ve done a great job representing yourself and your client.”

Lewis acknowledges that the career path of specialized accounting and being partner in a national firm is not something that always fits into a working mom’s life. “To do whatever it takes (for your career) requires some big decisions,” she says. “There was a time when I wasn’t willing to miss my kid’s games or programs. Yes, it did slow down my career, but it was my decision. Everyone has his own timeline.” Taking the promotion and responsibility of partner and leader of the national valuation team just last June came at a time in Lewis’ life when she felt she could wholeheartedly commit to the time and energy her career requires. It was the right decision for her, and she has no regrets about delaying her commitment. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime deal to lead this firm in my area and to be partner,” she says. “It has been everything I always wanted.”

Photography by KIMBERLY DAWN

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