women in leadership

Public companies want women on boards – seize the moment!

Zoya Malik spoke to Friedman LLP co-managing partner and DFK International president Harriet Greenberg about her career journey and how firms in the accounting profession can achieve gender equality

Zoya Malik: Please can you outline your career journey and explain how you moved up the career ladder to your current roles at DFK?

Harriet Greenberg: I started my career with a small firm which merged into KPMG, and left there in 1981 to join Friedman LLP. I’ve been with Friedman ever since, progressing to my current position as co-managing partner of the firm.

During my career I’ve had many mentors who have encouraged me to not only be a technical person but to also support the community and raise funds for charity, and I think that this has helped me progress in DFK.

When I first joined DFK International, I was a member of DFK USA before being elected to the executive committee and eventually becoming president. In my work with DFK USA, I began attending international conferences where I met so many amazing, smart people from across DFK International, and they asked me to put my name forward for President, my current position in the association.

It’s thanks to those who have come before me in both my firm and DFK International who saw some potential in me and supported me in reaching my career goals.

Harriet Greenberg, president, DFK International

ZM: Who have been your mentors on your career journey? What were their strengths?

HG: My first mentor was Bruce Madnick, the former managing partner at Friedman. He had an amazing ability to make everyone like him no matter what he said. I always admired his kindness, and he set the tone for the culture which I value in the firm. He was also the one who got us involved in DFK, something that is invaluable to us as the firm grows globally.

My husband Scott has also been a huge support. We’ve been together since we were 16 years old and he’s always encouraged me, telling me that I can no matter what the situation. They have been the two main drivers of my success.

ZM: What are the greatest challenges that women seeking to progress to executive roles face today?

HG: There are both external and internal challenges. Externally, it’s very difficult to be a woman in business – if you’re too aggressive that’s uncomfortable for people, and if you’re too passive that’s also too uncomfortable. It’s about finding a middle ground where you can be assertive without offending.

Internally, emotions around what people say or how people react can be a challenge for women. I tend to internalise my emotions, which was a learning process for me.

The most valuable thing I learnt in my early career is that there’s no crying in accounting, and I tell all of the women that I mentor to remain business-like in the office because the minute any emotions come out, people tend to shut down, which can be detrimental for women in business.

ZM: Is it important for accounting and finance firms to diversify the roles and areas from which they recruit CEOs and executive positions?

HG: I think it’s important that accounting and auditing firms diversify their recruitment process in general. At Friedman, we’re really expanding in technology and IT, and we’ve started hiring IT experts to work with the audit team, something that will be increasingly important going forward. We’re also financially compensating all staff who get their CISA IT certification, because we see technology as the future of accounting and audit.

A diverse workforce is hugely important, and is a reflection of the population, so we have to start thinking about that as a key priority. Non-discrimination is not enough, we have to be affirmative in diversity not only in the variety of roles available, but in making accounting opportunities available to everyone.

It’s not just about competency and education, soft skills are just as important in business development, if not more so. In recruitment it shouldn’t be about who gets the best grades, but about the person who fits in with the organisation the most.

ZM: Is diversifying the C-Suite is a priority for firms hoping to provide greater leadership opportunities for women? How can this be achieved?

HG: It’s certainly something of the moment. Right now, because of the various diversity initiatives in place, every public company wants women on their boards, so it’s the perfect time for them to take advantage of this and make real headway in C-suite positions.

Whatever the reason the opportunities arise, women should take advantage of this time in history because there’s more opportunity than ever before.

ZM: What recruitment policies is DFK International currently heading to ensure gender parity in the workplace?

HG: DFK has a huge number of women who participate in comparison to other associations, and I think that accounting as a sector is open to women in positions of authority. It’s certainly something that we have seen evolve over time, and my position as president is the perfect example of that.

DFK is an example of what a diverse organisation should be. We have many women in leadership positions and launched the DFK International Women in Leadership (I-WIL) Committee, which supports women across the association.

ZM: What can the audit profession do more generally to ensure greater gender equality and inclusion in recruitment?

HG: I don’t think recruitment is the issue. Looking at the US, there is generally an equal amount or greater number of women joining the profession. It’s more to do with enabling women to remain in the profession when they are dealing with life events such as having children, or maybe looking after ageing parents which generally falls to women.

The only way to enable women to take up management positions in accounting is to give them ways to get through those periods by offering flexible work schedules. Even if those flexible work schedules are for 15 years, it’s worth doing to ensure that people don’t have to choose between family and work.

Of course, there are men who take on the childcare who should be offered the same flexibility, but it has to be recognised that the majority of the responsibility generally falls on women.

ZM: Covid-19 and working from home have meant firms need to be more understanding of employees' caring and family responsibilities. What impact will this have on women seeking executive positions? What can firms do to help female executives who bear the brunt of care responsibilities?

HG: Covid has been a terrible time for everyone, but it’s taken working from home from the abnormal into the normal. As firms move forward, I think there’ll be a percentage of time that people continue to work from home with flexible hours, and I think it will prove the biggest benefit for women looking to remain in the profession.

During Covid, we were very flexible at Friedman on what hours people worked, and when schools were closed we subsidised tutoring to enable staff to have some time to themselves to work. Covid has proved that flexible working and working from home is possible, and although many firms will eventually return to the office, it will be forever integrated into our world to some extent.

ZM: How do you think the make-up of executive boards are changing with women taking position and what qualities are requisite on a board in achieving a balanced outlook for all stakeholders?

HG: Women have always been in board positions, but this is now growing and will continue to develop over time. Women certainly bring balance, and I think are more intuitive, but exactly what impact they will have is something that will only be clear over time.

ZM: How are DFK’s International Women in Leadership initiative and conference encouraging diversity in your organisation and the industry at large? What is the global impact?

HG: DFK’s I-WIL Committee was the brainchild of Anne Brady during her period as vice-president of the DFK EMEA region. The initiative is giving women in DFK, particularly the younger women in the association, the opportunity to receive mentoring and support to achieve their goals.

There’s also a charity initiative within I-WIL which raises money annually for different causes around the world which support women. This year we chose Kiva, a micro-loan company which supports people and organisations across the world.

Our member firms from across DFK International joined together to raise funds, and from this we were able to fully fund three loans and significantly fund two others. By doing this, we have the opportunity to change lives and make a global impact, demonstrating that the I-WIL Committee is not only hugely important internally within DFK, but also externally for a greater good.