Accounting has a diverse future

By Brendan Fitzgerald, CPA 2012-2013
Chair of the Executive Board

The CPA profession is making significant efforts to improve diversity and inclusion by hiring and retaining employees from the underrepresented classes of women and ethnic minorities.

We use the word “diversity” when describing the composition of firms and companies, the profession and the student population. Employers have created diversity initiatives or appointed managers to be in charge of encouraging diverse representation within our organizations – from entry-level positions, to the partner ranks in public accounting firms and prominence within the corporate hierarchy.

Employers implement programs centered on cultural awareness. But how effective are these programs if statistics support the notion that very little progress has been made in narrowing the gap in recent years?

The keys to achieving diversity within the accounting profession must begin with the realization that this issue isn’t about numbers. We can quote statistics on the number of minorities enrolled in bachelor’s programs as a percentage of undergraduate students and compare those numbers to the composition of our own organizations, but what does that really tell us, other than most of us are below average?

Women make up nearly half of the new accounting graduate hires in recent years but represent less than one quarter of the public-firm partner positions, and minority figures, both in terms of representation and leadership roles are even lower. The profession aspires to attract the best and the brightest, but how attractive are we to minorities? While we think we can offer the best chance for success, is the CPA profession perceived to be as attractive as medicine or law?

In addition to the many profession-wide issues requiring attention, we must also understand our individual biases. These are not institutional, but personal. Terms like “unconscious bias,” or “implicit bias” are used to describe the unreasoned judgments we all have. The fact that we are not aware of them is what makes them so hard to overcome. And even though bias is universal, it has a negative connotation. For someone to admit to bias takes courage. Rather than be fearful of repercussions, such self-awareness should be encouraged and applauded as the first important step toward change. Cultural or gender bias can be overcome only after we acknowledge its existence.

We must address the perception of our profession. In a profession dominated by white men, it is difficult to look through the door of the conference room or the board room and offer a reasoned argument that we are inclusive. We have a problem with representation at the highest levels that cannot be remedied quickly. Role models are critical to altering that perception, but if there is a dearth of candidates, where will the future role models come from? At the staff level, we must continue our efforts to encourage minority students to pursue a career as a CPA. It will take time to cultivate and encourage more minority students, but we must persevere. We cannot overlook the importance of peers and immediate supervisors in development along the way. Once on track, it will take mentors within organizations to support the effort by acting as coaches and advocates for underrepresented groups. Not all of us achieved success solely on our own merits; along the way we had someone champion our cause, which greatly contributed to our successful careers.

We must also be willing to listen and understand each other. How many times does poor communication lead to failure in an endeavor? The problem is often too little information being shared, not too much. When people are missing crucial information, they tend to fill in the blanks with their own suppositions. Lack of awareness about cultural differences leads to misunderstanding or incomprehension.

A panel comprised of women or minorities, or a combination, discussing the issues of diversity and inclusion would be very enlightening. It’s notable that what you are not hearing from these panels are arguments for lower standards for entry or promotion. All that is asked is that the same opportunities exist for all. In a profession that touts integrity as a pillar, we can do better.

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