IMA expands diversity and inclusion efforts

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The accounting profession is one of many struggling to adapt its workforce to reflect the changing demographics in the U.S., and the Institute of Management Accountants is working on an initiative to expand diversity and inclusion in corporate accounting and finance.

The IMA has been reaching out to organizations such as the National Association of Black Accountants and the Association of Latino Professionals for America to help with these efforts.

“I think one of the critical parts of my role that not only would help members of IMA, but professionals even outside of IMA, is the strategic partnerships that we get into,” said Linda Devonish-Mills, director of diversity and inclusion at the IMA, at the institute's annual conference and 100th anniversary celebration in San Diego this month. “What's been great with this conference in particular is that we've had representatives from two of our strategic partners that focus more on diversity."

Those representatives were Walter Smith, the president and CEO of the National Association of Black Accountants, and Damian Rivera, the president and CEO of the Association of Latino Professionals for America.

“It's those types of partnerships where IMA can play an integral role with diversity,” said Devonish-Mills.

The IMA also recently became a sponsor of the PhD Project, an organization overseen by the KPMG Foundation that supports minority doctoral candidates in business programs.

“That's important because the challenge with minority accountant professionals sometimes is they say when they're in school and even when they get out in the corporate world, they don't see a lot of people that they can identify with. Now we are partnering with the PhD Project to have more diversity in the pipeline, so to speak, in terms of academia," said Devonish-Mills. "This way, it encourages minority accounting professionals and finance professionals to stay in the classrooms.”

To expand the pipeline, Devonish-Mills has also been doing outreach to historically black colleges and universities. “From what I'm hearing from faculty, it's easy to attract the students to start with a major in accounting and finance, but it's harder to retain them,” she said. “Part of it is because they just don't see academic professors that they can relate to. And then in turn they don't feel that if they go into corporate accounting, they will fit in. I think IMA has a great opportunity to make a difference in that respect and really leverage what we're trying to do with our CMA First campaign — spread the word around to these students that there is a certification that they can obtain, other than the CPA, but also a program that allows them to take the exam as a student because we’re the only program within accounting and finance that allows them to do that.”

Still, there are challenges when entering the accounting profession, and mentorship programs can help ease the transition. “This actually applies to everybody, not just minorities, but specifically for minorities it’s great for them to get a mentor as soon as they possibly can in their career,” said Devonish-Mills. “Whether it's in public accounting or corporate, they're not going to see too many at a certain level, so once they do identify someone that is at a reputable level, hopefully they'll join companies that have formal mentorship programs. But if not, it would be great for them to be advised to seek one out on their own that can help them with their career path.”

Mentorships can be difficult to obtain at many companies and firms, whether a young accountant belongs to a minority group or not, but the mentor doesn’t need to belong to the same group. “A mentor doesn't always have to necessarily be another minority either,” Devonish-Mills pointed out. “It really has to be somebody that wants to make an investment in them and believes in their career path and just has the ability to help them. If it's not somebody they can relate to ethnically, they should identify someone that may have a career path that they're seeking and reach out to those folks as well.”

Students who come from historically black colleges and universities may go into the accounting field to help pay off their student loan debts, whose level can be relatively high compared to other schools, according to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal.

“The challenge with the students at those schools is, when I'm talking with faculty, they are not the typical students where they're just coming out of school and all they have to focus on is school,” said Devonish-Mills. “A lot of these kids are first-generation college graduates or just college students and they may be the key component of supporting a family. Some of them are holding close to full-time employment, in addition to school. So that's where the school loans come in because they may not be taking a similar course load as their counterparts. Or because of the lack of affordability, they may only be able to take maybe one to two courses a semester because they have other challenges to deal with.”

The IMA offers some scholarships, such as the Century Student Scholarship Fund that it introduced for its 100th anniversary and its Cameron & Margaret McLeod Memorial Scholarship, in addition to scholarships for earning the Certified Management Accountant designation.

She sees some positive changes in the way women are now treated in the accounting profession. “I would say since I started, it's come a long way,” said Devonish-Mills. “Despite what has been in the news in recent years, I still think there is good representation of women in the accounting profession in general. Where the struggle is, is in terms of the senior-level positions. That's still a challenge. Maybe mentorship is part of the solution for that because I think both men and women may not know what their options are when they come into a company. I think public accounting has more of a clearcut path in terms of where you can go.”

The accounting profession can provide more opportunities for ethnic diversity and people who can speak different languages to do international business, and she recommended that students consider degrees in international business, and taking courses in foreign languages. "I can just imagine that someone that's bilingual or [multilingual], with a good analytical background, would be a prime candidate to work at one of the Big Four firms,” she noted.

Both accounting firms and corporate accounting departments are places that need to diversify hiring of the disabled as well. “When you talk about disabilities, that's beyond ethnicity or diversity,” said Devonish-Mills. “That should just be something that's a given that most companies should accommodate.”

However, firms and companies also need to be careful during the interview process that they don’t ask personal questions about a job candidate’s disabilities, orientation and ethnic background that could violate employment laws. “There are laws that prohibit that, so you really should just be focusing on the person's skill sets and not on disabilities,” Devonish-Mills cautioned.

The IMA provides some advice to employers about recruiting and what they should be doing to search for a more diverse, inclusive staff in accounting. “This year I was involved in encouraging members that belong to our chapters and councils to have diversity and inclusion sessions as part of their annual conferences, with specific emphasis on one of the courses that we provide as part of our leadership academy called ‘Cultivating a Bias-free Workplace,’” said Devonish-Mills. “That's an opportunity for us to provide training to our members that hopefully they can pass on to apply to their organizations.”

The IMA wants such diversity and inclusion efforts to go beyond simply an individual event or workshop and become a continuing initiative. “We're trying to develop a program where it's not considered a one-off,” said Devonish-Mills. “Part of my role is to continue to find educational opportunities that can be presented to both staff and members. We had a similar session here at the annual conference about bias-free workplaces. IMA is encouraging a culture among both members and staff that a D&I initiative is ongoing. It’s not a one-off.”

During a board meeting at the IMA’s annual conference this month, the institute board approved a commitment to diversity and inclusion that represents more than simply the statement the IMA had earlier. “Our volunteer D&I committee was working on it for a few months,” said Devonish-Mills. “We had a statement prior to that, but we felt that using the word ‘statement’ would be static. You don’t get to the conclusion that this is an organization that embraces D&I on an ongoing basis, so we decided to come up with a commitment instead to really confirm our ongoing dedication to a D&I climate.”

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