October 24, 2020

What’s the Current State of Work-Life Balance in the Accounting Profession?

Five years ago, the New York Times published an article called "Flex Time Flourishes in the Accounting Industry." It boasted about how well the firms foster work-life balance within the culture.

Good on you, New York Times, except that many who work in public accounting firms tend to disagree. As GC told you then, the NYT piece is a total crock. One commenter on the NYT piece summed it up well: “Probably just a compilation, not audited.”

Naturally, the GC comments are full of (unverified) horror stories. One person talked about the grind of busy season:

When I worked in tax, I worked 80 hours a week for three solid months. The chronic sleep deprivation affected me physically (a total wreck), mentally (serious memory loss), and emotionally (severe depression with suicidal ideation). I know of another female staffer in the NYC office who hung herself in the ladies room and died.

Another comment also recalled the death of a colleague:

While I was at Reznick, a female consultant who I highly respected died in her sleep and I have to think it was due to exhaustion for the 80 hour work weeks expected every week throughout the year.

Also, a lot of comments said the flex programs don't work:

I have tried to get a flex schedule and was repeatedly turned down AND I have two small kids. I was told not to mention my children in the flexible work arrangement form. I had to practically beg for the flex schedule and had to promise to be able to do any of the work/conference calls/meetings if it occurred during the time I was not supposed to be working to prove KPMG loyalty.

A friend of mine works at a Big 4 part time – a 4 day workweek. Her 4 day workweek is really working 6 days but at 80% pay. She does not want to change to full time because she is occasionally able to get that 5th day off to be with her kids. Now you know why Big 4 promotes flex schedules – they pay people less to get the same work done.

I have a senior manager working "part-time" at my office. Her 50% employment translates into an average of about 40 hours per week. Get half the paycheck for the same amount of work people in industry regard as full employment…

Although flex programs and paid parental leave are a good start, they still aren't enough. As one commenter on that NYT article points out, the firms sometimes think we're Excel-bots. The culture has yet to adjust to a society of people who are both a professional and a human with a personal life. Both a professional and a caregiver.

CLM = Career Limiting Move = calling attention to yourself by doing anything so short sighted as letting people in the firm think you have a personal life or family.

Five years later, not much has changed. Oh, sure, the firms still offer flex programs to help reduce turnover and improve flexibility -– especially for working mothers -– which is probably more than a lot of non-accounting employers can say.

In the NYT article, one PwC executive said, “[F]lexibility policies had helped cut turnover to 15 percent a year, from 24 percent. Firms estimate that the cost of hiring and training a new employee can be 1.5 times a departing worker’s salary, so reducing turnover by 200 employees could mean $30 million in savings.”

But if the flexibility programs are indeed reducing turnover, why are so many women leaving the profession? According to the AICPA, “For the past 20 years, women have represented about 50% of new CPAs in the accounting profession. Yet today, women account for only 14.3% of Executive Officer positions in business and industry and 19% of partners in CPA firms nationwide.” 

Women leave the profession because despite the the flexibility programs, our culture still does not allow women (anyone, really) to pursue a career in public accounting while also focusing on family.

A recent survey found that 40% of women working in tech “speak less about their family in order to be taken more seriously — even doing things like keeping their desks free of family photos.” Rather than hiding the family photos to look “more professional,” why can't we create a culture where it's okay to be both a CPA and a mom or dad? (Or, in my case, both a childless CPA and a Max Paragon level witch doctor in Diablo III? My personal time = my business.)

We definitely don't have a parent-centric culture yet. Not even close. In 2016, a woman had to write an open letter to the creator of her office space asking for less beer kegs and more designated lactation spaces for nursing mothers. While this company had a beer keg in every office, hardly any of its locations had designated lactation rooms. Because nothing says “childcare matters” quite like a kegerator.

What do you think? Have the firms “evolved” over the past five years to allow for a better work/life balance? Are you a working parent? Does the firm as a whole seem to respect your family time?

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