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Accounting

Celebrating Women’s History Month: Advice for women in tax and accounting

Heather Walker  

Heather Walker  

Whether you’re starting your career, or you’ve been in the profession for a while, women have more opportunities than ever to rise above in the tax and accounting profession. As we enter Women’s History Month and celebrate International Women’s Day, we also celebrate evolution past gender cultural bias and advancements within the profession.

In this chapter of Small Talk with Heather Walker, I am joined by two successful women in the tax and accounting profession: Linda Forde, CPA and owner of The Forde Firm, and Nina Tross, Executive Director of the National Society of Tax Professionals (NSTP). Together, we explore some of those gender biases and review the best practices for women to flourish in a traditionally male-dominated industry.

There isn’t a glass ceiling unless you want there to be.

How we find ourselves in a career such as tax and accounting isn’t always typical. This holds true for Linda and Nina, where it all started with French class and a coupon.

“When I was in high school, I took French, and I said okay…I can’t do this. I’m never going to use this. Why am I torturing myself?” jokes Linda. “Then, I took an accounting class, and the nerd I am, it clicked for me. It was that thing: oh my, I know what I’m going to do for my career.”

Linda described the class as “old school”: an accounting set, making up transactions, and booking them on green bar paper. She fell in love with it.

“I joined the military in order to pay for my education,” she continues. “I went to school full time and served in the Air Force full time. When I got out of the military, I started in a little low-level accounts payable job and worked my way up. That’s my advice to women in general. Yes, you must work hard. It’s not going to be handed to us. We must work hard, but you can do it. There isn’t a glass ceiling there if you don’t want it to be.”

Nina, on the other hand, got into the accounting profession by total accident.

“I was living in St. Louis and I was bored,” says Nina. “I was an office manager in a small business, and I saw a little H&R Block ad: $50 off for their class. I took the class, and as they say, the rest is history.”

Like many in the profession, Nina started there for a couple years. Then, they encouraged her become an Enrolled Agent.

“I passed the exam, then I went to work for a small, family-owned business,” adds Nina. “I moved to Phoenix, worked for a CPA for a couple more years, then started my own practice in 1999. You could say it all started with an H&R Block coupon for $50.”

The value of education when there is an unconscious bias.

Both Nina and Linda recognize the need to work harder as a woman in tax and accounting. Sometimes this involves a change in mindset and approach.

“My passion is education,” says Nina. “Not that I want to generalize, but I think that men appreciate the value of networking, education, learning all they can, and we can’t just take the easy way out. Do your research. Do your due diligence and know what you are talking about. Also ensure the source you’re using is reliable, accurate, and you are quoting it accurately.”

Education is extremely valuable in rising ahead in the industry, as well as understanding there may be an unconscious bias people may experience. It feels like often people are willing to listen more to men.

“I think that’s absolutely true,” notes Linda. “A lot of men, especially with women in the profession, have an unconscious bias. They’re absolutely not aware of it. I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I’m the expert in my field, and I know what I’m doing. I’ve had men come into my conference room and say, ‘I saw on Google that I should do X’. It’s like, that is cute. I don’t use Google for my tax knowledge, I use the IRS website and Thomson Reuters.

“There is an unconscious bias there. I think how we approach it as women is important. We can get defensive, and we can ask them to stop ‘mansplaining’, or we can say ‘ok boomer’…whatever the phrase of the day is. Or, we can educate. We can say, you know what, I appreciate you bringing in this Google article. Let’s talk about what is right and what is wrong in this article, and let’s look at the research from Thomson Reuters or from whatever credible source so you can see what the real facts are. Your credibility goes up because you didn’t get hostile or offended. It really makes a difference, but it’s not always easy, I assure you.”

The value of networking and approach.

In this profession, it’s clear that age can be a big benefit. But for young females starting their career in tax and accounting, how do they grow to become successful, established women, such as Nina and Linda?

“One of the things we find with the younger generation is they think all interaction is online,” says Nina. “They need to learn the value and the benefit of actually meeting people. After the pandemic, get out there, attend local meetings, go to conferences, meet with your colleagues, and talk to people. Hook up with a mentor, somebody you can call when you have an issue. Some of the professional organizations have mentoring programs where they will connect you with someone. Make those connections with people in your area that you respect and reach out to them when you’re unsure. Relationships are your benefit.”

“Nina is spot on there,” adds Linda. “One of the young ladies that taught me the most was a ‘millennial generation’ intern of the department I managed. She taught me so much because she came in with that millennial perspective: okay Gen X, you’re too slow with this, let me show you a better way to do it. At first my attitude was, honey, sit down. I’ve been doing this a long time. But she taught me so many tips and tricks.

“That is my advice for the young women coming up. You do have the knowledge we don’t have. You do have the skills we don’t have. You can share that very much with us, but it should be like dealing with the man with the unconscious bias. It’s all about approach. If you come to me and tell me I’m doing this wrong, as the boss I’m going to be taken aback. But if you come in saying, ‘I saw you do this; did you know you can do that in one click? May I show you?’ Well of course, you just saved me three steps. Please share your skills with us and help us grow too.”

Regardless of your age, or where you are in the profession, it’s important to move forward with confidence, and remember the tax and accounting industry is not just a “Good Old Boys Club”.

“Men network, and we call it, when looking at it from a negative perspective, the ‘Good Old Boys Network’,” says Linda. “It’s not the boys’ network, it’s just a good network, and we as women have got to get there. It’s okay to go play golf and get a client on the golf course. I promise, it’s okay.”

“And to the young women out there, have realistic expectations,” adds Nina. “Know your boundaries, get the education you need to provide the services, and then have a plan in place. It’s easy to hang a shingle but have a plan.”

You may be a small firm, but you are not alone. Add Thomson Reuters to your staff with solutions and resources tailored specifically to the small firm. View some of these now and check in for more tips, guidance, and small firm stories in the Small Talk with Heather Walker blog series.