The door to the proverbial "Boys Club" may have been cracked ajar, but there's still some heavy pushing to do to get it wide open -- particularly for women of color.That was the overwhelming consensus of Women of Color in Accounting, a recent study conducted by Catalyst, a New York-based think tank dedicated to expanding opportunities for women and business.
The survey, which polled the experiences of African-American, Asian and Latina women in accounting firms, found that the respondents cited lack of similar role models, stereotyping, few high-visibility projects, and inadequate professional development opportunities as some of the major challenges faced by women of color.
"Certainly one thing that was agreed on by the audience is that there's more work that needs to be done by accounting firms," said Katherine Giscombe, vice president of women of color research for Catalyst. "Clearly, a lot of work has been done in the diversity and inclusion area, but the organizations need to do a little bit more."
The Catalyst poll -- the second installment of a series -- was sent to a sample of employees from 20 of the largest accounting firms by revenue between December 2006 and May 2007. It received more than 1,400 responses, which focused on inclusion in the firm work environment, perceptions of diversity and inclusion initiatives, access to networks, mentors and other types of relationships, and assessments of work-life effectiveness.
In addition, those surveyed highlighted dissatisfaction with client-service assignments; the likelihood to connect less with others at work, particularly men; and ineffective diversity practices in both bringing in a diverse workforce and providing adequate manager training as other challenges faced by women of color.
At a recent event held here to unveil the study results, a panel of women of color was assembled to discuss what findings resonated with them most.
One of the major findings was the concept of "intersectionality," which, according to Catalyst, is an analytical approach to understanding the ways in which different identities that people hold -- such as gender, race and class -- overlap or combine with one another, and how these multiple identities contribute to experiences of disadvantage and privilege.
"Not surprising to me -- apparently surprising to a number of people, however -- was the fact that women of color perceived that they do have it harder than men of color in these organizations," Giscombe said. "There are clearly several distinct disadvantages that women of color have when you compare them to both men of color and white women."
"One of the key parts of the study is that race trumps gender," said Sharda Cherwoo, a partner with Ernst & Young's Transactions Advisory Services Group in New York. "Women of color identify themselves with men of color more than with white women, which you kind of felt and saw in certain instances. But this lays it out."
Cherwoo, who was part of the panel, said that she was also struck by the research that showed women of color as less likely to connect with others at work, particularly men.
"That is something we all need to watch out for and think about because if that is true, you are cutting down the opportunities that typically women of color can have," she said. Cherwoo has been a partner at E&Y for more than 16 years. "I think I was the first South Asian woman partner in any of the accounting firms at the time and I just feel very fortunate."
STILL OUTSIDE, LOOKING IN
Still, the study showed that women of color are on the outside in many accounting firms, and often have to make adjustments to fit in.
"At the end of the day, your skill is your skill and there is really less subjectivity when it comes to that; you either do a good job or you don't," said Irene R. Marshall, CPA and partner with Mitchell & Titus LLP, the largest minority-controlled firm in the U.S. "But when it comes to other things that are important for an individual to advance within an organization -- particularly in public accounting -- one of those things is being able to generate business and being visible. Those things come through your networks, formal and informal, with other people. Within those networks, people a lot of times gravitate towards people of similar backgrounds. So if we look to the accounting industry and look at certain accounting-specific organizations, you're not going to find a lot of women of color."
Not surprisingly, white men experienced the best fit in firms, according to the study: "Employees entering organizations must adapt to existing organizational norms -- which are traditionally framed by white male leadership."
An uncomfortable feeling is also reflected with the low number of people of color at senior levels -- an uneasiness expressed by a Latina quoted in the report: "The one thing I do notice as I go to partner meetings ... is when you look at the number of partners and you look at the percentage of non-Caucasians, it's way too low. Way too low."
Catalyst also found that most people of color are less likely to believe that diversity and inclusion practices are effective.
More than 85 percent of women of color, white women, men of color and white men believed that their firm's diversity efforts are designed to be supportive of women and people of color. However, each group differed on the programs' effectiveness. Women of color were significantly more likely than men of color to believe that those diversity efforts weren't working. The study also revealed that 82 percent of women of color and 69 percent of men of color believe that managers do not receive adequate training in managing a diverse workforce. Some 43 percent of women of color reported that senior leadership does not demonstrate a strong commitment to diversity by hiring qualified and diverse candidates.
"Leadership commitment is key to the success of the initiatives," Giscombe said.
Marshall agreed: "If they are not reinforced with some kind of accountability built in on all levels from the ground up, then those diversity and inclusion practices really are not going to be that effective."
START WALKING THE WALK
Marshall, who works in the Philadelphia office of Mitchell & Titus, said that firms can create more accountability through performance evaluations for upper management that focus on tracking how often a woman or person of color is recommended for projects, and what has been done to introduce them to clients and get them more visibility outside of the firm.
Compared to other groups within the study, women of color experienced lower career satisfaction, even though they reported that their opportunities to advance to higher levels have increased over the last five years. Women of color also struggle with connecting with influential mentors -- though two thirds of the respondents indicated that they did have them -- and are least likely to be satisfied with business opportunities and client assignments, and are more susceptible to stereotyping than others.
"When you look at diversity and inclusion programs, you'll see that there are stated objectives that organizations are really attempting to create a more inclusive environment, and yet I think you'll find in many of the quotes in the study that there still is a disconnect about what is the objective and the actual execution," Giscombe said. "For example, managers may find that they are not recommending people of color for high-visibility assignments as much as they are recommending their white subordinates."
Though women in general were less likely to report that they were invited to after-work activities, the study revealed that women of color were more disadvantaged than white women regarding access to networks.
People of color were also less likely than whites to perceive that managers were fair in performance evaluations and their managers held high expectations of their performance.
People of color were also less likely than white women to believe that their managers were comfortable interacting with them, the study stated.
"I was not very shocked that women of color feel that there is a disconnect with immediate advancement in our profession," said Tene Thomas, a CPA and principal at McConnell Jones Lanier & Murphy LLP,
the largest African-American-owned accounting and consulting firm in Houston. "In my opinion, I feel that if you don't have the support from management to get on highly visible jobs or have direct client interaction to manage clients or business development, then there will be some discontent, so to speak, with your organization."
Thomas, who has also worked at firms with predominantly white management, said that it is the organization's responsibility to take the initiative and seek mentors outside of the workplace, if they are not immediately available. If a program is not working, Thomas said, the employee should speak up and tell the organization why.
"It all comes down to being capable of doing the job," she said. "If you can provide quality services, if you can get some buy-in from your clients, if you can develop relationships with your clients and loyalty, and they trust you and they respect your opinions, then there's no issue."
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