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Kyra Cavanaugh, president of Life Meets Work, responds to Flex Time Flourishes in the Accounting Industry, published January 7, 2011 in the New York Times. She challenges the piece which seems to hold forth the notion that major accounting firms have mastered work/life issues, and the idea that these firms have successfully transitioned women to the leadership track.

Not so fast! Using the numbers for flex employees from the article, only 15% of Ernst & Young’s employees are working flexibly. So, as the article points out, certainly they’ve made strides, but you’d be hard-pressed to convince me that’s an accomplishment other firms in other industries should emulate.

Yes, accounting firms got out in front on the workplace flexibility issue 20 years ago. It was a market-driven decision motivated by the increase of female CPAs graduating college (60%). And accounting firms have led the way in policy implementation. And, yes, some departments in some accounting firms have made strides in walking the walk, not just talking the talk.

But, that doesn’t mean we can hold them up as a standard for the rest of corporate America. In a 2010 report called Count Them In: Where and Why Women Leave Public Accounting and How to Reverse the Trend, researchers found a startling lack of pipeline in the accounting and finance fields. If flex had been so effective a strategy to retain working mothers (and fathers) in the accounting field, then there should be a long line of women waiting to fill their boardrooms.

Why hasn’t this occurred? Because for all of the policies, branded flex programs, and intention, what accounting firms have failed to do is change their corporate culture. Without a culture shift that changes internal attitudes about working flexibly -- a shift that loosens face time requirements and makes partnership tracks about performance instead of hours worked -- accounting firms will continue to face the challenges of a male-dominated partner track. And, they will find it increasingly difficult to retain their talent.

Consider Ryan Inc., a Dallas-based tax services firm with 42 locations worldwide. In 2.5 years, they implemented a flex program accompanied by a culture shift that stressed performance over hours worked. In that time, they slashed turnover from 18% to 6% and they increased client satisfaction almost a point, to 98%. Meanwhile, alums are coming back, and revenues continue to grow.

Not long ago, I attended a local accounting awards program for women. A work/life question along the lines of “How were you able to manage it all and still make partner?” was posed to a panel of award winners. The female partner who answered the question, thanked her husband for sacrificing his career to take care of the children, house and other family responsibilities she was too busy to manage. Does that represent progress?

I’m not against the Big 4. In fact, I have a lot of respect for them as visionaries and pioneers in the work/life movement. And they have made significant strides in the last 20 years. But, I call on them now to reveal their pioneering spirit by pulling back the curtain and talking about the goals they have yet to accomplish.

These accounting firms need to recognize their own need for a culture shift in order to a) enable 100% of their employees to work flexibly, b) fill their executive pipeline with women, and c) remain competitive over the next 20 years. That’s how they will retain their leadership position and model flexible work for the rest of corporate America.

But, the first step requires a move beyond puffy PR pieces and branded flex programs to recognize publically that more work remains to be done. Only then, will “how, where and when work gets done” truly change for all of America’s workers.

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