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Women Attracted to Accounting Firms for Flexibility Despite ‘Old Boys’ Network’ at the Top

Our friends at Vault are curating the data for this year’s rankings to be released later this summer but they’ve got a little teaser for us that they published last week. They found that the number of women in accounting is roughly double of those in investment banking, the explanation being that “that women, more than men, seek careers with better work-life balance […] due to the fact that they’re more often than not the main caretakers of families,” as well as “offerings that the former industry provides its women in the workplace.”

According to accountants who took Vault’s 2011 Accounting Survey, their firms offer extremely generous maternity leave (and, in some cases, paternity leave); do not look down upon or punish women who take their full maternity leave; offer numerous flex-time and part-time working arrangements; and provide strong mentoring, retention, and promoting programs for women.

The finding that “[firms] do not look down upon or punish women who take their full maternity leave” and “strong mentoring, retention, and promoting programs for women” are contradictory to the recent lawsuit filed by Donna Kassman, a former KPMG Senior Manager, who has sued the firm for $350 million gender-discrimination lawsuit. Her allegations include KPMG’s “[failure] to properly investigate and resolve complaints of discrimination and harassment,” that her salary was cut when she went on maternity leave and that she was subjected to numerous instances of harassment and discrimination. Whether this one example illustrates a systemic problem is debatable as the Vault survey includes a large pool of respondents (Vault doesn’t have the tally yet) who seem to have responded positively to question of gender opportunity but the allegations are severe and are a blow to the KPMG’s (and the Big 4 at large) marketing machine of gender promotion and equality. KPMG has stated that Kassman’s lawsuit is without merit.

Despite the positive findings, the survey respondents didn’t have all good things to say. Turns out, “some” respondents believe that the leadership at accounting firms are the professional services firm equivalent of Augusta National Golf Club:

However, this doesn’t mean that accounting still doesn’t suffer from some of the same things that investment banking does. Some accountants who took our survey report that their firms are still beholden to the “old boys’ network” and, at the very top of the org chart, still consist mostly of white males.

That and “minorities and GLBT individuals are on par with those in the banking industry — that is, not so hot.”

Overall, this take on women’s fondness of the accounting industry is certainly more believable than the Times‘ piece on the culture of work-life balance since it collected responses directly from those who work in the biz rather than going to the firms for the story.

Ladies, what do you think of the results? Do you have all the opportunities of your male counterparts and the flexibility with no strings attached or do you still get the feeling that the deck is stacked in favor of the bros?

What Does the Big 4 Have That the Bulge Bracket Doesn’t? [Vault]

(UPDATE) KPMG Sued for $350 Million in Gender Discrimination Lawsuit

~Update includes KPMG statement.

Former KPMG Senior Manager Donna Kassman is suing the firm in the Southern District of New York. She worked for the firm for seventeen years, resigning in October 2010 after “relentless gender discrimination and harassmentle, and it was clear that the Company had no interest in remedying the situation.”

Plaintiff Kassman alleges that KPMG engages in systemic discrimination against its female Managers, including but not limited to Managers, Senior Managers and Managing Directors. The lawsuit is intended to change KPMG’s discriminatory pay and promotion policies and practices, as well as its systemic failure to properly investigate and resolve complaints of discrimination and harassment. The Plaintiff is filing this action on behalf of a class of thousands of current and former female employees who have worked as Managers at KPMG from 2008 through the date of judgment.

Ms. Kassman and the class are represented by Janette Wipper, Siham Nurhussein, and Deepika Bains of Sanford Wittels & Heisler, LLP and they don’t spare the details:

Despite Plaintiff Kassman’s long tenure and stellar performance, KPMG refused to promote her along the partnership track. Ms. Kassman’s supervisors repeatedly told her throughout 2008 and 2009 that she was next in line for a promotion to Managing Director. Around the time Ms. Kassman was to be promoted, however, two male employees complained that she was “unapproachable” and “too direct,” thinly-veiled gender-based criticisms designed to derail her career advancement. Based on these unfounded, discriminatory comments, KPMG removed Ms. Kassman from the promotion track, subjected her to numerous hostile interrogations, and advised her to meet with a “coach” to work on her supposed issues. Instead of disciplining the two male employees for their campaign of harassment, KPMG rewarded them by putting them up for promotion.

KPMG’s female Managers are not only under-promoted, but underpaid as well. In one particularly egregious act of discrimination, KPMG slashed Ms. Kassman’s base salary by $20,000 while she was on maternity leave because she was paid “too much.” KPMG cited no business justification for slashing her salary. When Ms. Kassman complained about the salary cut, her male supervisor asserted that she did not need the money because she “ha[d] a nice engagement ring.”

“Unfortunately, Ms. Kassman’s story is completely representative of the treatment of women at KPMG,” Siham Nurhussein said. “Ms. Kassman repeatedly complained up the chain of command about the gender discrimination and harassment she was experiencing, and the Company reacted with neither surprise nor concern. Her supervising Partner told her matter-of-factly that her male colleague might have a problem working with women, and the Office of Ethics and Compliance told Ms. Kassman that men had ganged up on women at KPMG before. KPMG not only tolerates gender discrimination, but displays an active interest in perpetuating it.”

In addition to the systematic discrimination faced by female Managers at KPMG, female employees with children also face discrimination based on their status as caregivers and/or being pregnant. After she gave birth to her first child, Ms. Kassman’s career advancement at KPMG came to a screeching halt. Without any warning or provocation, KPMG abruptly cut her salary while she was on maternity leave and placed her on a Performance Improvement Plan upon her return to work. Ms. Kassman felt that she had no choice but to move to a “flexible” schedule, under which she retained all the responsibilities of a full-time employee, but was paid less. KPMG frequently touted Ms. Kassman as a role model for other working mothers, even though one of the Partners acknowledged that women on flexible schedules were “not going to get anywhere [at KPMG].”

An email to a KPMG spokeswoman was not immediately returned.

UPDATE: KPMG spokesman George Ledwith provided us with the following statement, “KPMG is recognized as a leader for its strong commitment to supporting women in the workplace. In fact, among the Big Four accounting firms, KPMG is tied with the highest percentage of women partners. We believe this lawsuit is entirely without merit.”

We’ll keep you updated with any developments.