The CPA gender pay gap

A survey of compensation among CPAs is about to be released. Have things changed since the last report and how does the profession compare with others?

Robin Taub, chair of CPA Canada’s Women’s Leadership Council

When Robin Taub entered the job market, she was convinced that, in her case, there would be no disparity in compensation compared to her fellow male graduates. As a vigorously recruited honours student from the Rotman School of Management, she felt sure the top CPA firms would offer her a package commensurate with her high-achieving potential. Even though she did not know it, chances are her compensation fell short of her male counterparts’. Now chair of CPA Canada’s Women’s Leadership Council, the bestselling author, speaker and leader in the field of financial literacy is not surprised that, even in 2015, the gender pay gap still exists.

CPA Canada is on the cusp of presenting its membership with a new compensation survey to complement the profession’s very first one on the topic back in 2013. The 2013 survey, which tallied results from 21,147 respondents, revealed that women in the profession — from graduates to veterans, working in practice, industry, government, academia and nonprofits — earned a median compensation of 84% of that of men. Women working through a CPA’s most productive years (between 35 and 64) earned about 80% as much as their male counterparts. Expectations are that the data garnered from the new survey will confirm that accounting is not unique among the major professions: all stubbornly maintain a pay gap many experts thought would have significantly narrowed by this point in the millennium.

“[People claim that] the reason women make less is because of their choices or actions,” says Mary Cornish, cofounder and chair of Ontario’s Equal Pay Coalition. “[But] that’s a very small part of what happens. The problem with unequal salaries is because the employer doesn’t have a professional, responsible and consistent salary system. We’re actually finding that people in the same jobs aren’t making the same kind of money simply because the employer is paying men and women doing the same job differently.”

Mary Cornish

Mary Cornish, cofounder and chair of Ontario’s Equal Pay Coalition

Some statistics show that women in the general population of workers often choose lesser-paying fields of employment and part-time work, and that having children can affect career progression. Those who believe the gender pay gap is a myth — for instance, many conservative politicians in the US Congress who have voted down pay equity legislation — speak only to these factors as the reason for the pay gap. Removal of these influences, in the naysayers’ view, would narrow the disparity to almost nil.

But statistical analyses run counter to such a claim. And they definitely do not explain the wide differential in wages revealed in OECD data from 35 countries, which shows New Zealand has the narrowest gap at 5.62% while Canada stands seventh at 18.97%.

And, at least in the major professions — accounting, engineering, law, medicine or MBAs in finance — studies on compensation undergirded by data controls that account for salaries based on age, experience, title and type of industry or practice consistently reveal that women earn significantly less than men. If one were to control for a male and female professional, both equally committed and high achieving, of the same age and in the same industry and position, the woman often earns less, says Clare Beckton, executive director of Carleton University’s Centre for Women in Politics and Public Leadership. “Why? Well, because they are women. We’re combatting centuries [and more] of tradition and ingrained societal norms that make determinations on the value of what women bring to the workplace.” The former assistant deputy attorney general for aboriginal affairs with the Justice Department and deputy head of the Status of Women Canada is less than confident that this long history of an unequal playing field will be very easily set right. “We have pay equity laws, the charter and human rights acts and international conventions that enshrine equitable pay and prohibit gender discrimination,” she says. “But this is a male-dominated world and there should be no surprise that an unconscious bias over gender equality in all areas will persist.”

Clare Beckton

Clare Beckton, executive director of Carleton University’s Centre for Women in Politics and Public Leadership

A 2014 Bloomberg Businessweek study of MBA salaries controlled for some of the above factors found that, after graduating, women from 112 US MBA schools earn a mean average of US$14,548 less than graduating men. Women landing jobs in finance — one of the most popular sectors for MBAs — command nearly US$22,000 less. In the legal profession around the world, inequality in compensation often starts at the beginning of women’s careers and rises through the years. A 2012 study by the Law Society of New South Wales, Australia, found that female lawyers with less than one year’s experience earned a mean income of A$4,500 less than men of comparable experience. And in a mere five years, the gap widened to A$14,200. Similar gaps and an inevitable widening of income disparity with longer service was found in a 2012 Canadian In-House Counsel Compensation & Career Survey produced by The Counsel Network, a legal recruiting firm. Interestingly, female engineers in the US, according to a 2012 study sponsored by the American societies of mechanical and civil engineers and Gallup Inc., earned higher median salaries in their first two years of employment. But again, with growing experience, the gender gap was firmly reestablished, with median income for male engineers overall throughout their careers at 19.8% greater than that of their female counterparts.

Compensation by age and gender chart 

Source: 2013 CPA Profession Compensation Study: Supplementary Report – Gender Differences.

One seeming bright spot in the CPA Canada report reveals that the pay gap between men and women from when they first start out to well into their 30s was relatively small in 2013. Under the age of 35, men earned only a median average of 5% more than women. But again, after 35, the pay gap began to widen significantly. “On an overall level, there is certainly a difference in compensation between male and female members,” says Paul Long, manager, marketing and market research, at CPA Canada. “It is important to consider that gender is not the only factor that impacts compensation. Elements such as type of industry, title, members’ age and whether they are an employer or business owner must also be considered when making sense of our survey data,” he says. “When these factors are taken into account, and male and female compensation levels are viewed in a comparable manner, the differences in average compensation between genders definitely narrows; however there are still differences in average compensation between genders.”

Long adds, “The 2015 compensation survey will be delivered to all members in May. We encourage all members to complete the survey.”

Compensation by place of work and gender chart

Source: 2013 CPA Profession Compensation Study: Supplementary Report – Gender Differences.

Karen Duggan, principal, research, guidance and support at CPA Canada and a key figure in developing the CPA Canada Gender Compensation report for 2013, is quick to define differences and reasons for how men and women progress through their careers. Citing several Harvard Kennedy School studies on gender and salary negotiation, Duggan describes how women traditionally fare rather poorly when they negotiate their compensation — if they negotiate at all. “The studies looked at the starting salaries of graduating classes and they found that few of the women negotiated their starting salary,” she explains. “And of the men, most did negotiate their starting salaries.” The studies found that when women are as hard-nosed as men in these negotiations, they rub against long-standing societal norms to a degree that may well harm their careers. “I think that much of the issue is actually unintended,” she says. “So part of the solution is to have leaders realize there is a problem. And I do believe some will say, ‘Yes, there’s a problem in engineering’ or ‘There’s a problem in law, but not in our shop.’ That’s just not the case.”

The 2013 CPA Canada report — like those from the other professions — clearly shows that even the smallest disparity in pay early on can have a profound effect on overall career compensation. “If you just take what’s given to you without aggressive and reasonable negotiation,” says Taub, “it starts to snowball; and by the time you get later into your career, there can be a significant gap. Men are used to negotiating, and they’re comfortable doing it because it’s how they were socialized. Women think that if they just put their head down and work hard, they’re going to be promoted and recognized.”

For Beckton, salary shouldn’t be dependent on the employee’s negotiation skills or the biased (unconscious or not) mind-set of the employer. “The solutions to the pay gap are more structural,” she says, “By that, I mean structural within organizations. Transparency about how and why people are paid X dollars would go a long way.”

Mary Bennett

Mary Bennett, author and consultant on gender and diversity issues

Consultant and author Mary Bennett hopes the gender pay gap revealed in the 2013 survey will ideally promote solutions based on the deeper issues underlying that gap, with CPA and industry firms auditing their pay practices (and changing them, accordingly). Bennett, member of the American Institute of CPAs and a former risk management and internal audit specialist, concentrates her consultancy on gender and broad diversity issues and is the author of two of CPA Canada’s Career Toolkits for Women.

Like Taub, Bennett was a much sought-after young executive, and she experienced and observed inequities playing out that affected women’s career trajectories and compensation. “I think compensation in comparison to your peers, in and of itself, is a validating signal of your success and value. At least, that’s the perception,” she says. “The first step really is wariness. So, looking at these surveys is good; we can actually capture some data. From there, it comes down to educating people about what kinds of behaviours are appropriate.”

For Duggan, it is very disappointing that unintended bias has not naturally disappeared as the profession continues to accept more women in its ranks.

“It’s been over 20 years where women have been at least 50% of the starting group every year,” she says. “And if it were a pipeline phenomenon — where with more women populating the professions then we wouldn’t see continuing disparities — we haven’t got there yet.”

To view the 2013 CPA Profession Compensation Study: Supplementary Report — Gender Differences, go to