This article originally appeared July 28, 2020 in Accounting Today.

Gender bias at firms must be countered by strong mentorship and a need for management to "get uncomfortable," according to a panel of experts during a recent session of the AICPA's 2020 Engage conference.

The session, "How to Advance Women into the C-suite," included speakers Jacquelyn Tracy, a partner at Mandel & Tracy; Rosemarie Brammer, a tax and accounting senior at Beemer Smith and Munro; Scharrell Jackson, COO at BPM; and Latoria Farmer, executive director of inclusion and diversity at KPMG.

While female diversity in managerial positions has been steadily increasing in firms, the number is still nowhere near a level that represents true diversity, according to the panel. Part of the problem is firms not fully harnessing their talent pool — women included — to promote those with potential.

"The first challenge I see women face is knowing their value and marketability and knowing when to explore your options," said Farmer. "The second area that is really significant is around retention and the need for organizations to reinforce that value proposition to keep women engaged and challenged with the opportunity to clearly be able to envision the future. Every organization should assess their talent pipeline … to identify the peaks or transfer where we are losing women and if they are experiencing career stagnation."

Coupled with the profession's ongoing need to address racial diversity, being a woman of color can be especially challenging.

"When you talk about women who are people of color, we oftentimes find ourselves uncomfortable, and part of creating diversity and belonging is that everyone needs to get comfortable being uncomfortable," said Jackson. "What I mean by that is that in order for us to truly infuse change, and for women to be able to successfully navigate through an organization or their career in a male-dominated environment, the men also need to be uncomfortable. But … we can do this shifting. We tend to operate in a space where we focus on how other people feel in our presence, and that is what oftentimes deludes us from being our authentic selves and, therefore, we end up being the only one uncomfortable."

A solution to this gap in female promotion is mentorship. However, there are two distinctions to be made within this professional guidance.

"I think you have to understand the difference between mentoring and sponsorship," said Tracy. "Mentoring [is] having a conversation with someone. … Sponsorship is different, where someone is putting their professional reputation, their political capital on the line for you to advocate for you. … At certain points, you need a mentor, someone to give you the information … to know what path you need to take her skills you need to build."

"When you get to that situation where you need or you want to sponsor, you have to make sure that you understand what value you are going to bring," Tracy continued. "If someone goes to bat for you, what are they going to bat for? What is your skill set, why should they put themselves on the line for you? What are you offering this firm or the team or the situation so that you are going to be successful? … Find someone that you would respect in their professional situation, what their capital is, to see if they can advocate for you."

Ultimately, the panel said, diversity has to move beyond paper initiatives to make real change.

"We have to be intentional about going out and being educated around how we can successfully navigate through the diversity/inclusion initiative beyond creating tasks where we check the boxes and say, "I created a committee," or "I created a mission," said Jackson. "What is the intentionality around getting to the finish line, and what does the finish line look like in order for us to say we are successful?"