May 30, 2020 Special Feature

Women in Tax: Making It Better for Others

By Bridget T. Roberts, Deputy National Taxpayer Advocate, Washington, DC

Giving a keynote address is an extraordinary privilege and requires some level of inspiration in picking a topic. When I spoke at Villanova last fall, I decided to consider my personal experience and what, based on that experience, women in the tax profession can do to make things better for those who come after us.

Until recently, I had given very little thought to the fact that I was a woman in the field of tax and that that could mean something. Growing up, I had no sense that there might be barriers or challenges that I would face because I am a woman. My supportive parents both worked full time—my mom at nights for a period while my dad went to law school. They had non-traditional gender roles for the time—my mom paid the bills and my dad did the laundry. I watched them both move within their careers. My mom took on increasingly advanced positions within her company—climbing the corporate ladder, so to speak. I was fortunate enough to go to an all-girls high school close to Villanova. There, again, the notion that I might face barriers as a woman was never a topic of discussion. I was blissfully ignorant. So much so, in fact, that when I began visiting colleges, I was incensed when administrators at one school, in an event in a large auditorium, stated that girls generally needed to have a higher SAT score than boys to be admitted because they had determined openings for males and females based on available dorm space. As soon as I heard that I looked at my parents, they looked at me (already knowing what was coming), and I said “I’m ready to leave. I will not be coming here.” What’s funny is that I was not upset that girls had to have better SAT scores but that boys were allowed to have lower scores. To me, that meant that the boys did not have to be as smart as the girls.

After college, I entered Villanova Law, knowing I wanted to be a lawyer but unsure what type of law interested me. In my second year, I participated in the Tax Clinic with Professor Book and discovered that I loved tax. I stayed on as his research assistant through the rest of my law studies and took all the tax classes Villanova offered. I liked tax because there were statutes and regulations: it seemed there was clearly a right answer to questions. Again, blissfully ignorant of reality.

When I graduated and considered what my next step would be, Professor Book mentioned that Nina Olson, the National Taxpayer Advocate, would be hiring attorneys for the first time. He shared my resume and I found myself at TAS. The type of work was varied: Annual Reports to Congress, the Low Income Taxpayer Clinic Program, helping to train other employees on tax issues, and working with the IRS on projects involving taxpayer service and levies. It was clearly not a typical tax law job. By working for TAS, I unknowingly chose to work for one of the few organizations run by a strong woman with women making up about sixty percent of the employees at different levels. There was no sense that there was anything special about me: I was just a woman in the tax profession. TAS provided opportunities to grow and develop, because those above me—all women—saw something in me that I did not see at the time. I was given an opportunity to move into a management position after a few years, even though that was not something I ever thought I would do. Clearly, finding my way in management was trial by fire, but I always knew that Nina and the other women in leadership positions wanted to see me succeed. They let me find my own way, were there when I needed help, and showed me where I needed to change. I always knew they were invested in my development and growth, encouraging me to move into positions I otherwise would not have considered.

For example, there was a time when Nina sat me down to tell me that she was moving me to a different position because, to advance, I needed experience in how TAS handles cases. This was a new area: to say I didn’t want to go is an understatement. I liked the job I was in, I was good at it, and I could do it without too much effort. I had a two young kids, was pregnant with my third child, and enjoyed the ease of my current job. Nonetheless, Nina was insistent that I needed this experience. I switched jobs and had an incredible learning experience. Without it, I would not be where I am today. When Nina’s deputy announced her retirement, Nina put me on a path for that position. This was again something that I did not think I was ready to handle, but Nina believed in me and, almost by default, I started to believe in myself. Little did I know Nina would retire just a year and a half later and leave me holding the bag as the acting National Taxpayer Advocate.

Entering the world of executives caused me to start thinking about what it meant to be a woman in tax and in a leadership position. I experienced firsthand the extra hurdles that are put in women’s paths. For example, at an executive meeting where we worked in small groups, I suggested an idea that I thought was important. The gentleman next to me agreed, and the conversation continued. Minutes later, a male executive made a suggestion—the same idea I had put forth earlier. Suddenly, the entire group nodded and said what a great idea that was. The gentleman who agreed with me the first time let me know he recognized what had happened. It was a minor incident, but it was one of those “lightbulb” moments when I realized that those incidents of women’s ideas being ignored that we read and hear about are true. People didn’t listen to what I said until a man said it.

It was at that point that many things that had happened over the past year or so came together for me. I realized that males are congratulated on their strong statements and leadership, but women are not. More times than I can count, I have been told that I should try to be collaborative or to be a better team player. I was once told that I don’t speak up enough in meetings, and yet sometimes the response when I say something is “yes, we are all aware how you feel about this.”

These little incidents, and a host of others, shattered the blissful ignorance I carried around for so long. I became an IRS executive before the age of 40—a rarity in this organization. So how is it that being a woman in this field is even at issue at this point? Recognizing that it remains an issue has led me to self-reflection about my own story, about how the existing culture—often subtle but running just beneath the surface—impacts me and the women who I hope will come after me. I am telling you the story of how I got here because I think we need more of that kind of support in the tax world. I did not get to be an IRS executive because it is what I dreamed of being when I was seven or because I put myself on that path once I joined the government. I ended up here, in large part, because other women saw something in me, gave me opportunities, and took the time to help mentor me.

I read a recent Thompson Reuters survey about women in tax and how, as a profession, we need to do more to support women in this field and those looking to advance. Although it focused on the private sector, it echoed many of the things I have seen in government. As I was growing in my career, I thought about how I fit into this world of tax and leadership, but I realized the question should be reframed to ask how my job and career fit into my world or the one I want to create.

A few years into my time in TAS, I was given the opportunity to go to work for the Senate Finance Committee for two years. During that time, I worked on legislation related to economic stimulus and the Affordable Care Act. It was challenging but rewarding work, and I loved it. When my two years were up, I was offered a full-time job as a staffer, but I turned it down without much hesitation. As much as I loved both the people and the work, I knew that it didn’t fit into my life. I found myself at work past midnight more nights than I can count. My boss’s boss liked to do what we called “bed checks” at 6pm every day: he would make sure the staff were still at their desks. Even if we weren’t in session or there was no work to be done, he expected everyone to be there until at least 6pm. I had just gotten engaged and knew I wanted a family, so the staffer job did not fit into that plan. I was ok with that choice.

There is so much noise out there telling women that they can have it all, and it is neither fair nor accurate. The myth is that we can become executives or make partner while also raising a family, making dinner every night, sewing our kids’ Halloween costumes, serving on the PTA and showing up for every school event while still taking time for ourselves. The reality is that we can have aspects of all those things, but not at the same time. We need to adjust our expectations to decide what’s most important. At least, that is my view. Once I had kids and started to think about how I spend my time, I decided what I cannot miss. I don’t miss birthdays, the first and last day of school, or the end-of-summer-camp party. I either schedule around them or I say that I can’t participate in the conflicting event. No matter what, there is always guilt. Guilt that I am not doing enough at home, that I am not giving enough at work, that I have to travel, or that I had to turn down an event because I could not travel.

I am not sure that aspect of being a woman in any career is going to change. That brings me to thinking about what can make things different for those who come after me. One of the key things that I think we can all do is to be honest. Be honest about the choices we have made and what we have sacrificed to get where we are. Be honest about what it is that we need and what we can commit to. Too often, I think we want to make things look effortless, as though we can handle everything without any help. Regrettably, that gives those who are watching us—and there are always people watching even when we don’t realize it—a false impression about what it takes to be successful. In addition to being honest, I think we need to talk about the fact that success looks different for everyone, that my path doesn’t have to be your path.

There’s a younger woman I work with whose children are the same age as mine. She is a person we have mentored because she has so much potential. Recently, she came to her supervisor to say that the travel required in her position wasn’t working for her family. She needs to be home with her young children; so while she loves what she does, she can’t do it right now. The initial response could have been anger and writing her off: we put all this time and effort into her and now she wants a different job with less responsibility? That would be unreasonable. I am exactly where she is now. Taking on increasing responsibility was my choice, but that doesn’t mean it must be hers. I am incredibly privileged to be in my current position. I have a supportive husband and generous parents and in-laws who step up when I cannot. Not everyone has that support system, and they may not want to make the same choices, even if they do.

It would be easy to write this woman off, to say she isn’t cut out for leadership if she isn’t willing to make sacrifices. But is that the world we want to perpetuate? Instead, she and I talked about where she might see herself in 5 to 10 years. We put her in a position with less travel where she can gain different experiences that will help her career grow. If she decides to step back into management later, she will have new skills and experience to do that. We need to support our female colleagues who are making these difficult decisions, not judge them. Amy Poehler says it well: “Good for her. Not for me!” We need to show women that their paths in this field can take many different avenues. That is one of the things that are so great about tax. You can work for a big firm, or a small one, or you can be a solo practitioner. You can work for the government or be a professor, work on the Hill or do research. We need to talk to women about all these different opportunities, so they can realize that what works for one person doesn’t always work for everyone and that no decision is forever.

When I became an executive, my youngest child had just turned one. People said they were worried for me. How would I handle having small kids and taking on this level of responsibility? Was I up to the challenge? Would it change me, cause me too much stress, give me ulcers? I would be lying if I said it didn’t give me pause, but after some self-reflection and long conversations with my husband and my executive coach, I decided to go ahead. What’s the worst that could happen? If in a year this wasn’t for me and I couldn’t handle it, I could ask to move to a different position. No decision is forever.

This is another thing we don’t talk about enough as women. I was unsure whether I could do this job. As the Acting National Taxpayer Advocate, there were points every day when I have questioned whether I can do this. What it boils down to is a basic fear that almost all of us have that I am not good enough. When I first became an executive, this imposter syndrome was a huge struggle for me. Every time I walked into senior executive meetings, I felt insecure about my younger age and being a woman in a male-dominated room. After a while, I realized I could let this hold me back, or I could accept it and get to work. I chose the latter. At a mentoring event last year for women who want to be executives, I talked about my struggle with imposter syndrome. One of the participants said she was surprised that I would be so open about it. Frankly, I was surprised that more women weren’t saying the same thing. It is something we all struggle with at some point. Pretending it doesn’t exist gives those women who are watching the wrong idea.

It’s okay to be scared. Everyone is scared. Everyone has moments in their careers when they feel like an imposter. It’s not just you. Importantly, “scared” does not equal “unqualified.” What matters is what you do next. My approach has always been to be authentic, because that is a powerful thing. For those of you who may have had the good fortune to meet Nina Olson, she is a true force of nature. She is self-assured, outspoken, and incredibly knowledgeable about tax and tax administration. I am not those things, so for a while I thought I wasn’t good enough. I could never do what Nina does in the way that she does it. Nonetheless, I realized I can do the job in the way that I want to do it. I understand what my strengths are, and I embrace them. I am honest about my weaknesses. I work on some of them, but many others I simply accept and seek colleagues who are strong in those areas. I do not need to be the most technical or experienced person in the room. That doesn’t mean that what I bring to the table isn’t just as valuable. I will always be the person whose emotions are visible, who makes a sarcastic comment or a joke in the middle of a meeting, or who gets emotional when I hear a sad story about a taxpayer case or an employee issue. Although I am aware of my audience, I also embrace that emotion. My humanity and my sense of humor have helped me relate to my employees and to taxpayers and form the basis of many of my decisions.

Sometimes, we seem to believe there is only one way to do things. This can be especially true for women in male-dominated offices. They may think that to get ahead, they need to change who they are to fit a mold, be more like the men who are their colleagues. I don’t subscribe to that approach. I talk openly in leadership training about staying true to yourself. That doesn’t mean not growing and improving, but women shouldn’t change who we are at our core to succeed. Because if we do so, people recognize it, and it can lead them to question what we do. Instead, women need to know that we can be valued for who we are, even if that doesn’t fit the typical mold.

Ultimately, all of us—particularly those of us who are in positions where we can be more honest and push the boundaries without worrying as much about the impact on our careers—must be open with those around us about what we have gone through and decisions that we have made, so that we model the behavior we want to see within our profession. This is how we start to shed light on the culture below the surface that prevents more women from moving ahead. This is how we support each other. In the end, we are all going through the same thing, and talking about it makes it more normal. It lets women see that there is a place for them in the world of tax, that being unsure doesn’t mean they shouldn’t put themselves out there, that they can forge their own path and continue to help change the landscape for the next generation. We need to identify those women who need our support and help mentor and champion them without thinking that they might be a threat. I want more women sitting in the same position I am in because that’s the only way we are ever going to see change: we have to pull more chairs to the table.