In 1987, I was part of a joint effort between the New York State Society of CPAs and the National Association of Black Accountants to increase the number of minorities in the CPA profession. At the time, black CPAs accounted for approximately one third of 1 percent of CPAs nationwide. That has grown to roughly 3 percent, according to NABA; an improvement, but still a troubling number.

Public firm statistics are even more disconcerting: Minorities made up 21 percent of accounting employees at CPA firms surveyed in 2010, according to the 2010 AICPA Trends report, but only 9 percent were CPAs. Of those, 5 percent were Asian, 2 percent were Latino, and only 1 percent were African-American. Latinos and Asians each represent 2 percent of all firm partners; there are so few African-American partners that they failed to eke out a percentage point in the study. These figures are abysmal and embarrassing. Considering all the efforts and resources that have been developed and spent over the past few decades to address racial inequalities in CPA firms, they are alarming.

All of the Big Four firms have diversity programs in place. PricewaterhouseCoopers has a program that brings first-year African-American associates together to discuss challenges they might face at the firm. Ernst & Young has an "Inclusiveness Officer." These are great steps forward, but will they get us to the solution the profession needs? These programs exist at the larger firms; what happens at smaller firms where there is no inclusiveness officer? What happens to encourage minorities to excel, or to earn their CPA licenses once they are working at a firm?

Howard University's School of Business Center for Accounting Education surveyed African-Americans who left public accounting and found that four out of 10 surveyed said that they were among the top performers in their firms, with "above average" rankings on their most recent annual evaluations. Another 56 percent were rated "average" and only 4 percent received unsatisfactory ("below average") reviews. Most left because they felt out of place or because they felt like they didn't belong at their firms.

 

IMPROVING THE SIGNAL

To address this, the CAE held a symposium in December, "Upward Mobility and Retention of African-Americans within the Accounting Profession," which took a close and honest look at the barriers preventing African-Americans from advancing their careers within the public firm structure. The CAE invited partners, directors, managers and other accounting firm professionals, as well as senior members of NABA and the AICPA.

They concluded what the above statistics show: that too many talented African-Americans are being lost to other careers. "Cultural problems remain a significant barrier for African-Americans in the accounting profession," the symposium's report reads. The symposium also addressed "taboo" subjects, such as subtle racism, that it described as those that are often glossed over by silence.

Howard's Frank K. Ross, the CAE's director, said that he has found that when African-Americans leave firms, they head into industry jobs, or go back to school to get their MBAs. In fact, when it comes to taxation, the IRS continues to lead with a minority population of 34 percent, which includes 20 percent in African-American tax professionals alone, according to the Minorities in Tax 2010 report. Hispanics in tax generally mirror their civilian work force employment percentage of 6 percent, reports TaxDiversity.

 

ANOTHER VOICE IN THE CHORUS

Minority professional associations and historically black colleges have been focusing on increasing diversity within the accounting profession for years. But real change will not occur until those who make the hiring and firing decisions and establish the culture within their firms hear more than a "politically correct" code word when they encounter "diversity." This issue is about race and privilege and what assumptions everyone - young minorities, educators, managing partners, CPA managers and directors - make about both. How do we establish a common language in which to address these issues? The New York State Society of CPAs counts more than 800 firm managing partners among its members, crucial stakeholders in this process. We can help. To move the discussion forward, the NYSSCPA is launching Career Opportunities in the Accounting Profession, Phase II.

COAP, which was first developed by the NYSSCPA and NABA, and later moved under the NYSSCPA's Foundation for Accounting Education, has been instrumental in introducing minority high school students in New York State to the opportunities available to them in the accounting profession. Many of the more than 2,800 students who have passed through the program in the past 25 years have gone on to college and study accounting and finance, but we've seen a similar dearth of CPAs out of our crop of graduates. Are they successful? Yes. Most go on to graduate college and that's something to celebrate in and of itself. And many of them continue to be in touch with the advisors that they participated in the program with, or they are now COAP advisors themselves, giving back to the program that gave so much to them.

But the program can do more.

In the summer, the NYSSCPA began organizing its own Diversity Summit to augment the decades-long work of so many of our peers by working with diversity officers, human resources managers, minority professional association leaders, educators, COAP alumni, and managing partners, with a goal that includes establishing mentorship and CPA Exam prep programs for minority college students and minority firm associates.

With approximately 100 million ethnic minorities in the U.S., or about one in three residents, according to the U.S. Census report, it is imperative that the profession find a way to retain this growing population, for the profession and firms to survive. As a professional association, it is our obligation to galvanize our members to make the changes that will drive future successful diversity initiatives.

It's the right thing to do. AT

Register or login for access to this item and much more

All Accounting Today content is archived after seven days.

Community members receive:
  • All recent and archived articles
  • Conference offers and updates
  • A full menu of enewsletter options
  • Web seminars, white papers, ebooks

Don't have an account? Register for Free Unlimited Access