Sexual harassment is a bigger problem than accountants think

Men and women who work in accounting say there’s a low prevalence of sexual harassment in the profession; the numbers suggest otherwise.

A few years ago, Alison was working as a staff accountant at a small firm of just seven or eight people whose sole owner, a man in his late 60s, liked to tell stories about his sexual exploits from his younger years. He also made rude remarks about clients’ bodies behind their backs, would talk frequently about women’s hips, and even encouraged female associates to wear shorter dresses. He once made a big production of how sexy a female client who had posed nude was — and had a male client who had done some modeling pull down his pants in the office.

“I was very uncomfortable,” Alison says of the owner’s behavior. “But I needed the job.”

Eventually, Alison moved on to a different, slightly larger firm, where the environment is less sexually charged. (All names in this article have been omitted or changed.)

Alison’s experience at the small firm, while not necessarily the norm in accounting, may be more common than many in her profession would like to believe.

According to a recent SourceMedia survey of accounting and tax professionals, a majority of men and women in the field believe that their profession, protected by the small size of its accounting practices and by its own integrity, suffers relatively few incidents of sexual harassment or other inappropriate behavior in the workplace.

Yet when asked directly if they have ever been subject to some form of sexual harassment in their careers, 34% of women across the profession said they have. That figure rises to 37% for women at firms with fewer than 50 employees.

Also in this series:
• Sexual harassment in the professional workplace: Behind the research
• 10 key findings: Sexual harassment in the professional workplace
• Wealth management fares the worst in broad study of sexual harassment
• Banks wrestle with sense of futility on sexual harassment
• Does Silicon Valley's 'bro culture' pervade IT elsewhere?
• HR’s culture shift: Tackling workplace sexual harassment while navigating legal definitions
• A #MeToo backlash is brewing in banking
• From strip clubs to massages: When clients are sexually inappropriate

Overall, almost two-fifths of female survey respondents reported being aware of others who have been harassed (39%), rising to almost half (47%) of women who work at firms with more than 50 employees.

Men were far less likely to have been harassed or to have witnessed it, but were as just likely to be aware of someone else who experienced harassment in the workplace, according to the survey, which was conducted by the company that publishes Accounting Today, as part of a broader investigation of sexual harassment across a range of white-collar industries, including banking, payments, wealth management, capital markets and human resources.

The most common form of harassment was “inappropriate questions, jokes or innuendo,” such as those described by Alison. Of the women who have been harassed or have witnessed harassment, more than half cited this type of behavior.

Twenty-five percent reported facing “persistent unwanted requests.” Men who had witnessed or, on very rare occasions, been subject to harassment themselves, were much less likely to mention unwelcome requests (10%).

Other forms of harassment, such as sexual pictures or posters in the workplace, suggestive text messages or emails, or threats of retaliation for not complying with sexual requests, were much rarer.

In the mid-1990s, when June was in her 30s, she and her then-husband launched a QuickBooks consulting business, and they held events to drum up new business. Once, a partner recommended a speaker who was a CPA. His presentation was great, June says, but at the cocktail party afterward, he began behaving inappropriately. “All of a sudden I feel a hand going up my legs, and the other hand goes down the front of my dress because he was standing behind me. … I almost broke his [expletive] hand. I said, ‘Don’t you ever touch me again.’ ” She did not make a scene, however, since the room was full of clients.

Later that night, as June was telling her husband about the speaker’s behavior, a colleague knocked on their hotel room door. “He’s white as a ghost,” June recalls. “He said, ‘You have to come right now. That man you had up on the stage almost raped one of our clients. I caught them in the hallway and I dragged him off her.’ ” June went to take care of the woman who had been attacked. She and her husband never worked with the speaker again.

The flood of stories about sexual harassment in Hollywood and the media over the past year has drawn attention to the issue of inappropriate — and sometimes criminal — behavior in the workplace and has whole industries reviewing their own records to judge how prevalent the problem may be.

The consensus across the accounting profession is that sexual harassment is not widespread in the workplace. More than two-thirds of respondents, regardless of gender or firm size, said that the prevalence of sexual misconduct — ranging from inappropriate remarks to persistent sexual advances — was low.

Asked to rate the level of sexual misconduct in the industry, on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 being “not present” and 10 being “very prevalent,” 70% put it between 0 and 3.

Gender made little difference: The percentage of women who said that the prevalence of sexual harassment was low ranged from 65% at small firms (those with less than 50 employees) to 69% at larger ones, and for men, it hovered between 72% and 74% across the board, regardless of firm size.

When those who rated the prevalence of sexual harassment low were asked why, they cited everything from the supposed shyness of those in the profession to, in at least three cases, “strong Christian ethics.”

Most respondents, though, cited one of three reasons for the perceived low prevalence of misconduct in the profession.

First was the overwhelming pressure of the job, from the craziness of tax season to the constant deadlines.

“Everyone is too busy just trying to get the work done,” said one accountant in his late 60s, who has been in the field for more than 25 years.

The size of the firms was also a factor in these responses. The vast majority of firms have fewer than 10 employees, and many have just one. These small, close-knit firms tend to encourage respect for their fellow practitioners, respondents said.

The views of accountants at small firms diverge from those at small firms in other professions, based on the findings of the SourceMedia survey.

Respondents from accounting and tax firms with less than 50 employees were significantly more likely to say that harassment isn’t prevalent in their industry: 69% rated the prevalence at 0-3 on the scale of 0-10, versus 55% for the rest of the respondents at firms of that size range in the broader SourceMedia survey.

And yet, women at small accounting and tax firms are statistically just as likely to have been harassed (37%) as women at small companies in other industries (34%).

By far the most common reason respondents in the accounting sector gave for citing less trouble with sexual harassment was simple professionalism. “CPAs are governed by strict ethical terms and behavior,” said another accountant in his late 60s, in his survey response.

“CPAs have to abide by a code of ethics,” echoed a manager in her early 30s who has been in the accounting and tax profession for almost a decade. “If this code is violated, it may be grounds to take away your license. Therefore any unprofessional behavior could not only result in embarrassment but loss of the ability to practice in your profession.”

Accounting is justly proud of its professional ethics; the problem is that respondents’ faith in the low prevalence of harassment in the field is belied by their own personal experiences.

A partner at the consulting company where Samantha, an accountant in her mid-40s, served as controller frequently steered conversations in sexual directions. “Any meeting we had with him, he would turn it into something about his penis,” she recalls. “I have a sense of humor, and I’m raunchy myself, but over time, something wasn’t funny, and I didn’t feel comfortable talking to him. … He didn’t touch me or harass me, not directly, but he said things that made me uncomfortable.”

Samantha never told the partner that he was making her uncomfortable, but her female manager told the man, who was in his mid-50s, to stop – and she was laid off shortly afterward. Samantha says that she does not believe the two things were directly related, but that they were part of a firm culture that viewed women as “expendable.”

She recently left the firm herself.

A big reason accountants believe that their field is relatively free of harassment is not that it isn’t there, but that they themselves don’t see it, or don’t recognize it. Across the board, approximately half of respondents said that they have not been subject to harassment themselves, have not witnessed it and did not know of anyone else being subject to it.

“I am not aware of there being major issues in the accounting profession,” wrote one survey respondent, an accountant in his early 60s.

The topic is, in many ways, the subject of significant uncertainty, and is not often brought to light. Over two-fifths of accountants said they think harassment is “rarely” reported (43%), and more than a third said that it only “occasionally” reported (37%). Notably, 42% of men said that they believe such incidents are “occasionally” reported, while only 28% of women said they believe that to be the case.

Relatively few said that it is “usually” or “always” reported — and 14% said they simply did not know.

Contributing to the perceived rarity of reporting is the compressed leadership structure of most firms.

“For a lot of companies that are really small, people doing the harassing are the people you would tell,” said Alison, the accountant whose former boss regularly made inappropriate comments. “You’re between a rock and a hard place.”

“It would be nice if there was maybe a 1-800 number you could call,” she added, “something to send [a harasser] a notice: ‘Someone has reported that they’re uncomfortable in the workplace.’ [You would] feel comfortable enough to say something to someone, and not worry they’re going to fire you.”

Apart from the emotional difficulties involved in speaking up, and the fear of potential retaliation, many respondents were uncertain whether reporting harassment even does any good. Just over a third of women in accounting at all sizes of firms (34%) said that they “don’t know” whether cases are fairly dealt with in the profession, as did a fifth of men (22%). Among those who had an opinion, there was little consensus, though there was optimism. Overall, 41% of all respondents said that it was “usually” or “always” dealt with fairly, and just over a quarter of women said the same. This number varies depending on firm size, however: Only 23% of women at firms with less than 50 employees said they think it’s always or usually handled fairly, versus 40% of women at larger firms.

Respondents were also not sure if sexual harassment is something their firms take seriously. A fifth of the women overall (20%) said that they don’t know if addressing sexual misconduct is priority at their firms (rising to 25% of women at the small firms), and a third (33%) said that it’s only a moderate priority. Another third (31%) say it’s a low priority, or not a priority at all.

In contrast, 44% of the men surveyed said that dealing with sexual harassment is a moderate priority, and more than a fifth (22%) described it as a high priority.

As to why they thought it was a high or low priority, opinions were wildly divided. Some (mostly men) said that it was a high priority, but that it shouldn’t be; others said it was a deservedly low priority. Many said that harassment was a low priority simply because it doesn’t happen, while one male middle manager in his late 50s said it was low because of management’s “failure to recognize that there is an issue.”

Echoing him, a respondent in her early 30s in upper management in the field said, “I think those in our industry know it’s important, but I think many are still in denial that it happens as often as it does.”

Finally, a middle manager in her late 30s summed up the feelings of many, both male and female, when she said that handling sexual harassment is a low priority “because it's primarily males who lead public accounting firms.”

And that is where sexual harassment ties into a larger issue that the profession has been grappling with unsuccessfully for decades: gender inclusion.

Patty is now an executive at a technology company in the accounting space, but she began her career as a CPA with a Big Four firm. Taking clients to strip clubs was a common sales tactic, but as one of the few women partners at the firm, she refused to participate. “You kind of have to accept that that’s going on,” she says, “but you’re excluded from the selling process.”

Exclusion went hand in hand with double standards for men and women, she says: “One of the partners would have sex with staff or an assistant; we had a manager who was still in bed with his assistant from the night before when he was on speaker phone with the partners. … If a woman did that — no way. There was a big difference in what’s accepted when you’re a man versus a woman.”

Men she reported to at the firm openly told her they weren’t comfortable with women in roles like hers. “They said, ‘If my wife did what you did, I don’t know if I could handle it,’ ” she says. “So they held me back because they couldn’t imagine their wife doing it.”

Women are conspicuously absent from positions of power in accounting and tax services. According to a 2017 study by the American Institute of CPAs, they make up just 22% of partners at CPA firms overall. The numbers are better for smaller firms, with women making up 42% of partners at firms with two to 10 CPAs, 30% of partners at those with 11 to 20 CPAs, and 26% at those with 21 to 99 CPAs.

The higher percentages at smaller firms, however, masks the fact that those female partners are not evenly distributed across all firms – often they’re clustered together in women-owned and female-majority firms.

“Men are still in control,” said one woman in her late 60s who’s been in the profession for over 25 years.

That has implications beyond how prevalent harassment is, and whether firms will make dealing with it a priority, but for some, the impact that it has in other areas is more important. “The issue I continually hear about and have experienced is more gender exclusion,” said Patty. “With the men at a firm golfing, for instance, it excludes women from helping their careers. That is overwhelmingly one of the biggest issues I hear about at every conference I go to.”

“Being a predominantly male industry in the past” has led to problems like the relative prevalence of sexual harassment, said one middle manager in her early 40s who has been in the field for almost 20 years. But, she added, “It has changed to having many more females in prominent positions.”

Now close to 70, Eleanor owns her own tax and accounting practice — but the road there wasn’t easy, and she endured periods of harassment along the way. “When I graduated in accounting in 1965, females weren’t in accounting,” she recalls. “When I went to job interviews at national firms, I was told, wait, you can’t be an accountant — but you can be a bookkeeper.”

The only person who would hire her in accounting was offering a salary that wouldn’t pay her rent, so she took a job at a bank, where she was the only woman with a college degree. “The higher-ups always took advantage of me,” she says. “One in particular, a vice president, would come up behind me while I was filing or sitting at my desk and rub himself all over me.” She reported him several times, but the most they would do was move her to the drive-through window to keep her separated from her harasser: “They would tell me, ‘You’re a good-looking woman … you have to expect things like this.’ ”

She left the bank for teaching, but hated it, and finally decided to start her own tax and accounting firm. Even as her own boss, though, she still found some clients who wanted more than their taxes done — repeatedly asking her to lunch or drinks or dinner. Rather than put up with that, she simply refused to take those clients.

While striking out on their own may be an option for some of those who face sexual harassment, it’s not going to solve the problem of harassment in the workplace. The men who currently lead firms — and the women who are, slowly, joining them as partners — need to find ways to address the issue that don’t involve gender segregation, even if it is self-imposed.

A majority of survey respondents (57%) said that the key to preventing unwanted sexual conduct at firms is cultural changes in the workplace (57%), followed closely by commitment from upper management (56%), with men and women largely agreeing

So, cultural changes that make it clear that inappropriate talk and actions won’t be accepted or overlooked, along with the right tone at the top, will be critical for preventing sexual harassment. “The values held by firm management have made our workplace safe and comfortable,” said one manager, a woman in her late 20s with seven years of experience in the profession.

Half of respondents say they expect that management commitment and cultural change will need to be bolstered by better human resources procedures. Roughly two-fifths of respondents said that increased sensitivity training would help, and one-third said that stricter penalties for bad behavior in the workplace would be useful.

Most of the accountants and tax professionals surveyed said they don’t think that legislation is the answer, though men and women are strongly divided here. Overall, only 12% of accounting professionals said that new laws aimed at punishing harassers would help, though 17% of women would be in favor of proposing legislation, versus only 8% of men.

One thing that many respondents said will help is a changing of the guard, as an older, male-led generation of accountants and tax practitioners leaves the workforce.

“I think people who have been harassing people for a long time think it’s normal. I think they’re too far gone,” said Samantha. “They grew up with a certain culture being OK. We have to have those people retire.”

Patty agreed. “I was talking to a friend in the industry about this and she said, ‘I’m still surprised about how many baby boomers still own accounting firms. When they’re gone, things will change.’ ”

Michael Cohn, Sean McCabe and Roger Russell contributed to this article.

(SourceMedia, which publishes Accounting Today, conducted its online survey of more than 3,000 professionals across multiple industries in the first quarter of 2018. The study, “Sexual Harassment in the Professional Workplace,” is a joint project of SourceMedia’s editorial and research departments.)

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