Historically, accounting firms have carried the stereotype of men's clubs - and predominantly white men's clubs, at that. There probably isn't a woman or minority CPA in public accounting who can't recall an instance of clients expressing concern over non-white, non-males being assigned to their engagement - or even asking that women or other minority members of the team be replaced.Janette Marx, senior vice president at Ajilon Finance, a financial staffing firm headquartered in Saddle Brook, N.J., recalled that when she started at Ajilon, "Companies that would call would be very discriminatory when they would give us [staffing] orders. We would have to let them know that we will always send them the best person for the job, or decide we don't want to work with that company because we're not going to discriminate."

Today, Marx said, staffing presents a different challenge. "Now we're getting companies who call and say, 'Due to my diversity requirements, I really need this ... .'" She has watched the shift over the years, "going from someone who's discriminating one way, to somebody who's really trying to make their group more diverse."

In spite of problems both real and perceived, the percentage of minorities in accounting firms is on the rise. In 2004, the most recent year for which statistics are available, new hires in public accounting firms included 23 percent minorities and 53 percent women.

In 2005, the American Institute of CPAs prepared a report, The Supply of Accounting Graduates and the Demand for Public Accounting Recruits, in which the organization reported that ethnic minorities (which include Asian, Black, Hispanic and Native American) account for 23 percent of undergraduate accounting degrees, 21 percent of Master's, and 38 percent of doctoral degrees. Jimmy Williamson, a senior partner in the Alabama firm MDA Professional Group and the 2006-2007 chair of the AICPA, has pledged to achieve greater diversity in the profession as one of the top agenda items of his tenure.

WHY DIVERSITY?

Chris Simmons, partner and chief diversity officer at Big Four firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, has seen the landscape change as well, and he's convinced that having a diversity program in place can positively effect the environment of an accounting firm.

For example, had there not been a diversity program at PwC, Simmons said, "I'm convinced that we wouldn't have the number of women leaders that we have in the firm today, because human nature, if left to its own designs, generally reflects society, and we still live in a society where we have to debate whether the country is ready for a woman president."

PwC didn't release specific statistics, but according to a human resources spokesperson, women's representation at the partner level has increased 30 percent from 2001 to 2006, and other sources said that the firm currently has 343 women partners, representing just under 16 percent of the partnership.

A diversity program, according to Simmons, should incorporate three separate but related agendas:

1. Expanding the number of people who consider coming to the firm.

2. Improving the satisfaction level of people once they are hired.

3. Advancing them to the higher ranks of the firm.

To accomplish these goals, Simmons explains that a firm must move past societal patterns in relationships and focus on the working relationships within the firm. This outlook is particularly important in accounting firms, because public accountants typically work on teams, and the teams must work well together in order to provide top-quality service. "If you allow yourself to be isolated, you're going to have problems. If people don't know you and the quality of your work, you're going to have a challenge," he said.

Simmons' mantra focuses on encouraging minority firm members to take responsibility for their own future, and part of that action might include expanding one's social network across minority lines and making sure that the quality of one's work is recognized by supervisors. "Each group has very unique challenges that they perceive that they face. I try to make our minorities more rugged warriors," he said.

NOT ENOUGH?

Many CPA firms have created diversity programs, and to the casual observer, it would appear that the world of professional accounting is making an effort to expand its boundaries.

In July, for instance, Ernst & Young Global added the country's largest minority-owned accounting firm, Mitchell & Titus LLP, which was founded in 1974, as one of its member firms.

But not everyone agrees that enough progress has been made.

"In recent years, the firms have started to pay more attention to diversity among minorities," said Frank Ross, director and founder of the Howard University School of Business Center for Accounting Education. However, he added, "Even though the major firms have their diversity programs, I do think that the problems are still the same."

The CAE conducted a survey in the fall of 2005, polling some 1,180 black employees in major accounting firms throughout the country. The responses were strikingly similar to results of a survey conducted of members of the National Association of Black Accountants just last fall. The NABA survey included financial professionals in corporate, government and not-for-profit organizations.

Approximately one-third of respondents in both surveys stated that they have found that white colleagues with less technical competence or experience than themselves have been given more high-profile or challenging job assignments, and more than half of the NABA survey respondents believe that they have received biased evaluations from supervisors because of their race. Twenty percent of partners and 31 percent of managers indicated that they feel that coping with discrimination has been one of the greatest challenges in their work environment.

In spite of the existence of organized diversity programs in the larger accounting firms, Challenge Okiwe, director of the Center for Advancement of Minority Accountants at NABA, said that he feels that greater diversity problems exist at the larger firms due to "the ratio of minority to non-minority counterparts."

"I think that sometimes on the surface, employers want to say, 'This is what we offer for our minority employees,' but the facts and the feelings that are actually in the firm don't necessarily relate to what is presented and projected to the mass media," said Okiwe.

Okiwe said that NABA is focusing a great deal of effort on educating high school students and opening their eyes to opportunities in the accounting profession. "The perception is that it's just boring. If you compare the accounting industry to the marketing or the entertainment industry, obviously it's a different perception. So the perception for accounting is not what young kids really look to and say, 'Hey, this is the glamour.' What they fail to understand is that with an accounting degree, you can go anywhere in business."

MANY MILES TO GO

In spite of real and perceived problems, the minority population in accounting is on the rise, as the AICPA study showed.

Many organizations and publications give annual awards, praising the accomplishments of firms in their diversity efforts, and all of the larger accounting firms have won at least some of the awards. With or without awards, firms of all sizes are dealing with diversity issues on a daily basis and will continue to do so. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has indicated that it expects the national workforce to encompass 70 percent women and minorities by 2008.

The shifts in the make-up of the workplace continue to present new challenges to those who are on the front line of keeping the peace.

Simmons believes that a truly inclusive diversity program will benefit every employee. "In some kind of way, we're all diverse," he said.

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