Diversity in accounting has a long way to go
For years, diversity and inclusion initiatives have made accounting firms and the profession at large aware of the issue, encouraging professionals to take notice of a changing population, but diversity numbers remaining largely unchanged over the last decade or so: Data from the American Institute of CPAs puts African-American and Asian professionals at just 4 percent and 5 percent of accounting partnerships, respectively, as of 2012. Similarly, female professionals only make up 19 percent of partners across the country.
It’s become clear more action is needed, which is why difference-makers in accounting diversity are putting in the work to change the face of accounting and its leadership for years to come.
Diversity and inclusion isn’t a new topic in accounting, but it continues to be reinforced. The reason is anticipatory: As minority populations grow in the U.S., the accounting profession (and all professions, for that matter) must grow to reflect the customers they are serving. A well-known U.S. Census prediction has minorities in the majority by 2042, and with this, professionals must understand that their window of opportunity for acting to transform the profession is closing.
Richard Caturano, national leader of culture, diversity and inclusion at Top 100 Firm RSM US, and a past chair of the American Institute of CPAs, still believes that one of the best outcomes of taking action on diversity is how it sticks in professionals’ minds and encourages them to do more on the subject.
“Having diversity initiatives is important for a number of reasons, but perhaps one of the biggest reasons is that they raise awareness,” he said. “While most of us know — at least on some fundamental level — that diversity and inclusion is important, it’s easy to forget or to ‘put on the back burner’ during our busy daily lives. Diversity initiatives help keep diversity and inclusion front-and-center, reminding employees at all levels across an organization and across the profession that diverse employees bring diverse thinking, which results in innovative solutions for our clients. And it’s those innovative solutions that help us succeed.”
Gender is another side of the diversity and inclusion coin, with female leadership always looking for more representation in accounting. Carla McCall, co-managing partner at Massachusetts accounting firm AAFCPAs, is the creator of the firm’s Women’s Opportunity Network — an initiative to grow and maintain female leadership in and out of the firm. Formed in 2011, WON looks to provide a much-needed balance between the life milestones of working women — including children, a home, and education opportunities — without having to sacrifice the progress in their professional lives. This involves constant communication, according to McCall.
“It is important for leadership to initiate and maintain a dialogue within the ranks of the firm in order to change the way team members think (both male and female) from the top down,” she explained. “Firms must foster a culture that helps women prepare for, and stay ahead of, emerging work/life conflicts. Women must be allowed to chart their own career path — a path that will not match the traditional one forged by a historically male-dominated profession and a path that was previously hyper-focused on billable hours.”
McCall adds that the crux of the program is AAFCPAs’ leaders, who believe that “there is no reason why women can’t be great leaders … [and] WON helps to grow them as professionals and mentors.”
While it’s important that professionals understand the need for a more diverse field, the question will always come back to what exactly is being done to make that vision a reality. Whether it’s the brainchild of the whole profession, a firm or a single professional, a good diversity initiative is focused on results, and according to experts, a good diversity campaign must have a bottom line of producing measurable actions that look to ensure a more diverse profession.
At RSM, the firm has created a semi-annual system that takes stock of the amount of diversity, in terms of both ethnicity and gender, across recruitment, partners and the firm’s overall culture. The firm also adheres to the AICPA’s accounting inclusion maturity model to further measure its progress.
Caturano also explained how the firm’s 11 employee network groups, which are managed by staff, have promoted diversity across the firm’s nationwide offices. “Our employees really embrace the opportunities the ENGs provide to get involved and to learn about one another — how we’re different, and how we’re alike,” he said. “ENG members also have opportunities to learn new skills — including leadership skills, build new relationships, and increase their understanding of different points of view. It’s good for us because it helps us understand one another better, and it’s good for our profession because our people become ‘ambassadors,’ sharing their experiences and stories about diversity and inclusion with others in the profession.”
“Our clients benefit because the thinking we’re able to bring to the table to help meet their needs is more inclusive and innovative than it would be otherwise,” added Caturano. “And when our clients benefit, it’s a positive reflection on our profession. It’s truly a win-win-win.”
McCall also reports that under the WON initiative, female leadership at her firm — with regards to partners, directors and managers — is currently at 48 percent, up from 25 percent in 2011 when the program first began. Through events such as women’s initiative roundtables, firmwide work-life integration panels, and guest speakers, WON has kept gender diversity discussions a constant at the firm, which in turn has produced big results in such a short amount of time.
“We are proactively proposing solutions to attract and retain women in leadership positions, and we are committed to maintaining this momentum with consistent, measurable progress,” McCall added. “AAFCPAs established a firmwide dialogue related to the business case for advancing women in the profession, and more flexibility in the way we work. Additionally, AAFCPAs’ team members are each paired with mentors to help create transparency in each individual’s career path, and to collaborate to overcome work-life conflicts.”
A WAY OF LIFE
While it may seem that there are always more pressing issues at hand for today’s professionals, diversity and inclusion initiatives represent vital future needs. It’s no secret that firm culture and the business landscape are changing, so it’s important to see how eventual diverse leadership will help make the transition into the future that much easier.
“When it comes to diversity and inclusion, we must be diligent, as a profession, as firms, and as individuals,” urged Caturano. “It isn’t a one-and-done type of initiative, but a way of life, woven into the very fabric of our firms. Today’s job seekers are savvy, and they have many options when it comes to employers who are competing to attract and retain high-performing talent. With a Google search … they can easily determine whether your firm embraces diversity and inclusion. If it doesn’t, they won’t even consider you as a potential employer. And since its people are a firm’s most important asset, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what will happen to firms that can’t attract and retain people.”
“Perhaps even more importantly,” he added, “focusing on diversity and inclusion is important because it’s simply the right thing to do.”