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Photograph by Sofie Delauw — Getty Images/Cultura RF

How women can reach the top in accounting

Sep 12, 2015

Dear Annie: I’ve been following Fortune’s coverage of women in traditionally male-dominated jobs like engineering, and I wonder if you can shed some light on what’s going on in my field. I’m starting my senior year of college as an accounting major, minoring in finance. I’ll be looking for my first “real” job soon, so I’ve been taking my campus career center’s advice and contacting alumni who are high up in Big Four firms. Without a single exception, they are all men. So I’m wondering, does that just happen to be true of people who went to school here, or are women generally scarce at, or near, the top of this profession? If the latter, do you have any suggestions on how to improve my chances of eventually getting to the top? — Just Joanie

Dear J.J.: Good question. On the one hand, you’ve picked a field that’s showing strong demand, with job openings in accounting and auditing up 19%, and in finance up 21%, in the first six months of this year, according to workforce-data firm Wanted Analytics. Pay is climbing, too. Staffing company Robert Half International’s latest salary survey reports that employers will boost starting salaries for new hires in accounting and finance by 4.7% in 2016, well above the average 3.3% raise companies have budgeted for employees overall next year.

On the other hand, though, the lack of female senior executives in accounting is not unique to your school’s alumni association — far from it. Women make up almost half (44%) of employees at CPA firms, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) found in its most recent survey on diversity, but they're just 19% of partners and principals. That’s a big improvement over the scant 1% of people at that level who were women in 1989. But it’s slightly fewer than the 21% of female partners and principals in 2011.

What’s keeping more women from rising to senior jobs? “Accounting isn’t really any different from many other historically male-dominated businesses,” notes Kristen Rampe. She now heads up her own consulting firm, providing training and development to accounting firms, but Rampe’s earlier experience provides a clue as to why so many women quit before making partner.

While working at a Big Four firm, she recalls, “I looked at the people above me and saw no one who had the life I wanted. It wasn’t unusual for people to put in endless hours, especially during audit season, and brag about it. One senior man slept on the couch in his office every night and didn’t see his family for a week.” Employees who wanted a life outside the office, including some of Rampe's male peers, clearly weren’t going to make partner.

That kind of 24-7, up-or-out culture may be changing. “The next generation of CPA firm leaders is demanding that firms create a family-friendly environment conducive to a healthy work-life balance,” the AICPA report observes. “Firms have to adapt to changing worker concerns.”

In the meantime, getting ahead is going to depend on you. Rampe offers these four suggestions:

Work on your communication skills. “Most accountants and finance people go into it because they’re good at math and they like working with numbers, but they often haven't got great ‘people skills’,” says Rampe. “You need to know how to have difficult conversations, especially how to articulate what you need from others in order to do your job — and the earlier the better.” While you’re still in school, she recommends taking a class in negotiating if you can. “A marketing class that focuses on branding would be good, too,” she adds. “It’s not too soon to think about building your ‘personal brand.’”

Find a sponsor. Mentors are great, but sponsors are even better, if somewhat harder to come by. Once you’re in your first “real” job, Rampe says, “Keep an eye out for someone higher up whom you admire and like working for. Do great work for them, and let them know you consider them a role model.” This person could be male or female — maybe even someone from your college alumni association, if you find yourself working at the same firm.

“Ask about the requirements for success long-term. What is the firm trying to achieve, and how can you help?,” she suggests. Impressing a sponsor, so that he or she becomes a fan and “may even be willing to stick his or her neck out for you,” Rampe adds, “is often what makes or breaks careers.”

Start an affinity group at work. Especially at a firm with no senior women, “you could initiate a discussion group, like a ‘Lean In circle,’ to help bring diversity issues to the fore,” says Rampe. “Invite men to participate.” That’s important because “I really think men, particularly younger men, at many firms aren’t biased against women. They’re willing to judge everyone’s work on the merits. But, once women get a seat at the table, there is often a sense that just having women there kind of checks that box.”

Grab a beer with coworkers once in a while. You can be serious about your career without taking yourself too seriously, Rampe notes. “Take advantage of any chances that come along to get together with your peers informally, just for fun,” she advises. "The more you talk about topics unrelated to work, and connect with colleagues as people, the more you’re perceived as ‘likable.’” Research has shown that “likeability” is essential to moving up in any business (and that competent, assertive women are often perceived as lacking in it).

One more thought: Especially while you’re in your first job (or two), do a realistic assessment of your chances of reaching a corner office. If you find after a few months or a year that you’ve landed at a firm that’s dragging its feet about promoting talented women, you can always leave.

“One great thing about accounting is that there are so many firms, and demand for your skills is everywhere,” says Rampe. “There is no shame in moving on if you find yourself in a bad situation. You have to respect the people you work with — and vice versa.” Good luck.

Talkback: If you’re a woman who has succeeded in a mostly-male business, how have you done it? Leave a comment below.

Have a career question for Anne Fisher? Email askannie@fortune.com.

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