International Women's Day: The Business Case for SKY

20 March 2017

By Wendy Henry. managing partner, BKD St. Louis/Decatur, SKY Advisory Council Chair (Praxity)


I have to admit, I spent the majority of my professional career in a bubble. I “grew up” in BKD’s Colorado Springs office under a strong female leader. She supported talent regardless of gender and fostered an inclusive culture. Her mentorship helped me become the best professional I could be. Our office wasn’t absent of gender issues, but I always felt supported.

Not until I moved to St. Louis did I begin to see gender differences within BKD. Please understand—there was no overt discrimination. We were hiring women and men in equal numbers across the firm, but women weren’t being promoted to partner at the same rate. At the same time, we were in a war for talent across our offices. Our firm was growing, and our partner group was aging. We knew we couldn’t continue losing would-be leaders at an accelerated rate.

Leadership decided to analyze the gender gap, and what we found was similar to the AICPA’s published findings:  We were losing talented professionals, and it was hurting our firm. Our research showed the average career duration for women at BKD was six and half years—two years shorter than their male counterparts. The assumed explanation was women were leaving public accounting for less demanding careers or to stay at home.

However, we discovered a Deloitte & Touche LLP study from 2003 that made us think again. In the study, Deloitte interviewed high-potential women who’d left their firm and found that more than 70 percent were still employed full time while another 20 percent worked part time at another firm. Less than 10 percent were at home with small children. Even these women eventually intended to return to work full time.

At BKD, we believed we faced a similar situation. While women made up 54 percent of our managers, only 17 percent of partners were female, so we decided to develop some targeted strategies to retain and advance women in our firm.

With that objective in mind, we launched BKD’s SKY Initiative. SKY is a firmwide strategy to emphasize and strengthen diversity by initially focusing on attracting, retaining and developing women leaders. SKY also seeks to identify and remove cultural barriers and biases preventing BKDers—regardless of gender—from maximizing their potential.

The SKY strategic plan focuses on three broad categories:

  1. Engagement of firm leaders and management
  2. Overall organizational culture
  3. Increased visibility and development of individual women

Engagement of Firm Leaders & Management

BKD—like most large CPA firms—has leadership that’s predominantly male. We knew we had to enlist our firm leaders as SKY allies and educate them from the beginning if we wanted to create an inclusive culture. We’ve been very fortunate to have the support of CEO Ted Dickman. Ted launched SKY and became our initial SKY chair to set the stage for the initiative, and he remains active on our SKY Advisory Council.

Finding opportunities for discussion and education were a priority. We educated our firm’s managing partners, partners, Management Committee and Governing Board at various times throughout the year and at BKD’s annual partner meeting. Some of the topics discussed were:

  • Understanding SKY’s business case – The business case includes the cost of losing talent and benefits of keeping talented professionals regardless of their gender. In a 2011 Catalyst study, researchers reported companies with more women board members had better financial results. “To accelerate change, we need to stop treating gender as if it’s just a women’s issue,” the report said. “And perhaps most importantly, organizations must enlist both women and men to work together as allies in changing the organizational norms and structures that perpetuate gender gaps.”
  • Understanding psychological influences – We shared research on gender brain differences using the book Leadership and the Sexes by Michael Gurian and Barbara Annis. The information helped clarify our goal at BKD wasn’t to “fix” women or shame men. Good leaders understand how to communicate with their teams regardless of gender.
  • Understanding the confidence gap – We read The Confidence Code by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman to gain a deeper understanding of how men and women display confidence. Most were shocked to learn women speak 75 percent less than men in a mixed-gender work setting. Many leaders recognized the importance of asking women directly for input.

Our Overall Organizational Culture

We wanted to discover where our culture was creating unconscious biases. We used the Gender-Career Harvard Implicit Association Test with members of our SKY Advisory Council and MPs. Armed with the results, we worked through a series of cultural statements and compared the responses from our SKY Council and managing partners—the first largely composed of women and the second predominantly men.

We’ve also used firmwide resources, publications and events to educate BKDers on gender and inclusion topics, including:

  • New hire and training videos – We incorporated SKY videos into various employee onboarding processes. We also created videos and related follow-up activities for our different training courses. Topics include career navigation, gender differences, personal branding, unconscious bias and team diversity.
  • Semimonthly SKY Alerts – These firmwide emails include career advice, tips from role models and gender-related educational topics.
  • Gender intelligent CPE – We produce two CPE sessions each year for all BKDers on specific topics supporting women and provide education on being gender intelligent. The real power in these courses are the office-level discussions where participants can freely discuss their ideas, fears, concerns and opportunities.
  • Practice unit meetings – We’re preparing to introduce gender intelligent discussion topics for monthly partner and managing director practice unit meetings. Participants will read about a topic ahead of time and have directed conversations on the subject during the meeting.

Increased Visibility & Development of Individual Women

Our SKY Sponsor-Protégé Program is a great example of BKD’s efforts to showcase our women role models and develop our next generation of firm leaders. Each year, we select a protégé class and pair them with sponsor partners. Now in its third year, this program continues to benefit our protégés by establishing deeper professional relationships and advancing specific career goals.

In terms of developing our women, the highlight in 2016 was our BKD Women’s Empowerment Summit. Every woman in senior II through partner levels and all men in senior leadership roles were invited to this two-day conference centered on “The Missing 33%”—the keynote presentation by Susan Colantuono, CEO of Leading Women, LLC. If you’re not familiar with this concept, watch Susan’s TedTalk, “The Career Advice You Probably Didn’t Get,” that covers the same concepts. It’s fantastic!

Other summit sessions covered topics like business acumen, mentoring, career navigation, personal branding and building strategic relationships. Our women walked away with a renewed understanding of our business and what they can do to be successful. The men in attendance learned firsthand what it feels like to be in the minority and—more importantly—how they can branch out and support the talented women professionals at BKD.

There’s more work to be done, but we’ve started the journey. We see consistent shifts on our firm’s culture regarding gender and inclusion, and we’re already experiencing success from our decision to actively help women and men reach their fullest potential.