Lynne Doughtie has been named U.S. CEO and chairman of KPMG. (Photo courtesy of KPMG)

For the first time in history, two of the largest accounting firms in the United States will have women at their helm. KPMG announced on Tuesday that Lynne Doughtie will become the firm’s new U.S. chief executive and chairman, closely following the election of Cathy Engelbert as Deloitte’s U.S. CEO just a few months ago.

Doughtie and Engelbert have served at their firms for three decades before reaching the top spot, starting a year apart from each other in 1985 and 1986, respectively. Both women also have seen their firms transform over the years from workplaces dominated by men to ones that consistently rank high among the country’s best employers for women.

Doughtie, who is in charge of KPMG’s consulting practice in the United States, will serve a five-year term when she takes over as CEO and chairman on July 1. Her strong leadership of that advisory arm, which is the fastest-growing part of the firm's U.S. business and saw revenues of $2.65 billion in fiscal 2014, was a key factor in her election to chief executive, according to a KPMG insider who was not authorized to speak publicly about the appointment.

It is perhaps no coincidence that both Deloitte and KPMG — two of the "Big Four" firms that dominate the accounting and professional services industry — happened upon similar timing for their historic moment. Most partners considered for election to chief executive in such firms are at least 50 years old, and many of the prominent firms did not launch official initiatives for retaining and promoting their female employees until the 1990s and early 2000s.

Doughtie, 52, and Engelbert, 50, are, in a sense, graduating members of the earliest class of women whom their firms caught from "opting out" and tried actively to develop into leaders.

"The focus on retention and advancement has led more women in the profession to achieve that top spot," Doughtie said in an interview. "We're beneficiaries of those efforts."

Doughtie started at KPMG in the Richmond audit office. Like Engelbert, who told The Washington Post at the time of her election that "a key to my success was that I found male mentors and male sponsors," Doughtie said that much of her professional growth was aided by men who championed her within the organization.

A 2010 study by Public Accounting Report showed that more than 60 percent of U.S. accountants and auditors are women, yet they still make up only about 18 percent of partners at large firms.

Though Doughtie and Engelbert have not yet met, their organizations have already been in conversation about "best practices on the gender and diversity front," according to Doughtie.

"This is a topic where competition doesn't matter," Doughtie said. "We all benefit when we get better at this."

Read also:

Cathy Engelbert on becoming Deloitte's first female CEO

Lockheed’s Marillyn Hewson is the highest-paid female CEO so far this year

The worst question you could ask women in a job interview

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