Gender and Accountants’ Use of Technology
By Benjamin P. Foster, Julia N. Karcher, and Alan S. Levitan
Accounting journals and other business publications have highlighted concerns about the position of women in the accounting profession, including lower retention rates and the possible existence of a glass ceiling. Given the strong technology component in accounting, differences in the technological orientation between male and female accountants could affect the integration of women into the profession.
CPAs were surveyed to determine their experience with accounting information systems (AIS). In a positive finding for women in accounting, the authors’ research shows that, in general, female CPAs are likely to use the same applications and perform the same tasks as male CPAs.
Some commentators are concerned that the increasing number of women in the accounting profession will have an adverse affect on the profession’s status. After studying the historical development of other professions and occupations, some researchers have suggested four alternative scenarios for the future of the accounting profession. First, the profession could become predominantly female, since females accounted for more than half of the profession in the 1990s. Historically, other professions that have become predominantly female have lost prestige and earning potential. Second, accounting could revert to a male–dominated profession. Third, the accounting profession could wind up with different levels or tiers that could be used to differentiate professionals. Such a system could accommodate different career track choices in ways that might mirror gender differences. The fourth alternative is for accounting to become fully integrated. Males and females would operate at all levels of the profession equally.
Interviews conducted with the heads of the then–Big Six would seem to support the fourth scenario. All of the CEOs understood the need to retain all qualified employees and to base promotion on merit. Several female employees interviewed explained that they continued to be promoted even though they had elected to work a flexible schedule.
As the profession becomes more dependent on technology, however, it could become multitiered. Research has shown that males and females are likely to have different experiences with computers throughout their primary and secondary school education. Males are more likely than females to have had a course in computer literacy (55% vs. 48%) and computer programming (29% vs. 20%), according to a survey of over one million high school seniors. Females are more likely to have had coursework or experience with word processing (75% vs. 69%).
The disparity between males and females continues into college. The percentage of female graduates in mathematics and computer science in U.S. schools rose from 32.3% in 1975 to 39.4% in 1985 but dipped to 36.4% in 1990. A similar downward trend can be seen in the number of women in information technology positions, from 35% in the early 1990s to 29% in 1998.
Although computer science could be considered a male-dominated culture, women have made inroads in other occupations with masculine cultures. The small number of women in computer science cannot be ascribed solely to the culture. The difference, in some cases, is a matter of choice. Women may also use technology and computers differently. Research has found that men and women have different styles of computer programming, with men more likely to take risks. If technology use differs by gender in the accounting profession, the increasing importance of technology should lead to a concern about the status of female accountants.
The authors surveyed 250 CPAs employed in public practice and 250 employed in other areas, with a response rate of 40.4%. Current usage, expected future usage of various accounting information tools and tasks, and general demographic information were collected (see Exhibit 1).
Exhibit 2 illustrates whether the CPAs performed a task or used an application on a daily, weekly, monthly, or quarterly basis, or not at all. The overwhelming majority of respondents, male and female, use both a word processor and an electronic spreadsheet. In general, slightly more female than male CPAs do not use AIS tools at all. The only statistically significant differences between male and female responses relate to assessing controls, and designing or modifying the design of an accounting system: Men perform these tasks more frequently than women. Overall, however, the study found little difference between male and female CPAs.
Limitations, and Future Research
Our results are positive for the accounting profession. As far as technology is concerned, the accounting profession does not appear to be moving toward a multitiered skill set. Women are essentially just as likely to use the same AIS applications and perform the same AIS tasks as men, although further research on more specific task definitions is needed to confirm this conclusion.
Several reasons might account for the results. To graduate from most accounting programs, students must master various technologies, and those that are uncomfortable with accounting information systems are likely to drop the accounting major. Similarly, technological ability is essential for success once one enters the professional environment. While computer-programming styles can differ by gender, the tendency can vary greatly by individual. Further research might investigate gender’s impact on the use of AIS applications and the performance of AIS tasks by non-CPA accountants.
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