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An Analysis of Glass Ceiling Perceptions in the Accounting Profession

Abstract

Access to a deep pool of talent is essential to the success of every professional services firm. The supply of that talent is contingent upon the available rewards for the exercise of that talent, and both the existence of the potential rewards and the beliefs that individuals hold about the existence of the rewards affect the decision to remain in the field. One structural factor that may affect the judgment about whether to remain in a profession concerns promotions based on the gender of the employee (i.e., the “glass ceiling”). In this study, we examine the “glass ceiling” within the context of the accounting profession. While advances have been made within the accounting profession to address the glass ceiling, the continued existence—and perceptions about the continued existence—of the issue exert adverse effects upon the available talent pool and may create long-term problems for the profession. In this study, we investigate glass ceiling perceptions among a large sample of female accounting professionals employed in accounting; the sample includes both public accountants, and those employed in industry accounting. Our study yields the finding of beliefs in bias-driven effects (e.g., a bias against female promotions to the top level), structural effects (e.g., a lack of mentoring opportunities, networking opportunities, and high-profile job assignments), and cultural effects (e.g., a lack of social support from the male leaders within the organization) among these accounting professionals. Glass ceiling perceptions are also influenced by several demographic factors. Furthermore, accounting professionals employed by industry are more likely to report a glass ceiling within their firms than accounting professionals employed by public accounting firms. The findings are of interest to researchers who explore gender-related issues in professional service firms such as the field of accounting, and to senior members of practice who are tasked with ensuring the integrity and quality of the talent pool and the equitable distribution of rewards to employees.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The existence of the glass ceiling has the potential to create significant problems for researchers studying the judgment and decision processes of top decision-makers, as the selection bias that results in a paucity of females for such samples also incorporates known gender-based differences in professional judgment and decision-making. For example, research indicates that teams made up of more women are more productive and efficient (Woolley et al. 2010), which is particularly relevant for the team-based nature of auditing (e.g., Trotman et al. 2015). Female audit partners are more effective at mitigating the earnings management efforts of their clients (Ittonen et al. 2013). Female analysts issue more accurate forecasts than male analysts (Kumar 2010), and female CFOs are more likely to make decisions that maximize shareholder value, as compared to male CFOs (Huang and Kisgen 2013). Likewise, studies that rely on students or low-level employees as proxies for high-level decision-makers will have problems with predictive validity, since those studies will not be able to control for the real-world selection bias and the lower proportion of females that arise from the glass ceiling effect.

  2. 2.

    Jost and Kay (2005) further point out that these stereotypes and status cannot be disentangled: the stereotype is derived from the role and status. Traits of competence and assertiveness are ascribed to high-status individuals, while traits of communality are ascribed to low-status individuals, and in turn, competence and assertiveness are assumed to be required for high-status positions, while communality is assumed to be required for low-status positions. If a person occupies a low-status position, the assumption is that the person is communally oriented, and if that person occupies a high-status position, they are assumed to be assertive and competent.

  3. 3.

    The Oregon, Washington, and Tennessee Boards of Accountancy provided us with mailing lists of all the CPAs licensed in their respective states (i.e., both male and female accounting professionals). However, given that our study examines female accounting professionals’ perceptions of the glass ceiling, we coded all of the names as male or female and used the female accounting professionals in our email requests. Names that were not obviously female names (e.g., Clare, Sloan, Cristy, Ashley, etc.) were coded as female names. Some respondents emailed the authors to indicate that they were males. Additionally, three male accounting professionals completed the survey; we removed these observations from our study.

  4. 4.

    Our email requests informed sole proprietors and female accounting professionals who were not employed in private accounting or public accounting to ignore our survey. However, we note that several female accounting professionals who were either sole proprietors or who were not employed in public accounting or private accounting (e.g., governmental employees) completed our survey. As such, these participants were removed from the analysis (i.e., these observations were not included in our final sample of 410 completed surveys). Furthermore, we also removed six participants who indicated that they were retired. We also note that we pilot tested our survey on a small sample of female CPAs licensed in Oregon, Washington, and Tennessee. Following the pilot test, several minor changes were made to our survey. The results from our pilot test are not included in the reported results.

  5. 5.

    In related research, Dalton et al. (2014) asked female public accountants to respond to the following question: “To what extent do you believe the glass ceiling exists in your firm?” where 1 = not at all; 3 = a moderate extent and 5 = a large extent. Dalton et al. find that 45% of female public accountants reported that the glass ceiling exists to at least a moderate extent (i.e., a response of 3, 4, or 5 on the scale). In the current study, a smaller percentage of female public accountants (i.e., 27.9%) reported the existence of a glass ceiling within their firm, potentially because they were asked in a different manner. Specifically, in the current study, female public accountants were asked to respond to the following yes/no question: “Do you believe that the glass ceiling exists in your firm?”. In other words, the measure used by Dalton et al. (2014) presupposes the existence of a glass ceiling (i.e., To what extent do you believe the glass ceiling exists in your firm?), which we believe explains the higher percentage of glass ceiling perceptions found by Dalton et al. (2014).

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Correspondence to Jeffrey R. Cohen.

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All procedures performed in studies were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. Note that the survey design and use of human subjects were reviewed and approved by Clemson’s Human Research Protection Program.

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We appreciate the contributions of the workshop participants at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst and helpful comments from Tina Zamora, Vishal Baloria, Mengyao Cheng and Mary Ellen Carter (September 2018).

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Cohen, J.R., Dalton, D.W., Holder-Webb, L.L. et al. An Analysis of Glass Ceiling Perceptions in the Accounting Profession. J Bus Ethics 164, 17–38 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-018-4054-4

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Keywords

  • Glass ceiling perceptions
  • Glass ceiling theories
  • Public accounting versus private accounting