Voices

Are we there yet? Diversity and inclusion in finance and accounting

My term as immediate past chairman of the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants and immediate past chairman of the American Institute of CPAs ends after the May 2019 council meeting. With this chapter closing, I wanted to reflect on one of the big challenges of our profession, and of many other professions — attracting, retaining and advancing the best and brightest across all demographics. Yes, diversity and inclusion remains a key strategic business imperative for most organizations.

As the first person of color to serve as a chairman of AICPA, I’m proud to have added my voice and example to the inclusion discussion along with the many other leaders across the profession. During my tenure, I was fully prepared to discuss advocacy, member value across all segments of the profession, our new Association, volunteerism in state societies, and initiatives for audit, tax and advisory services, among others. However, as I traveled across the United States and around the world, it became increasingly clear to me that I needed to also share my journey of mistakes, lessons learned, disappointments, being female in environments where there were few, being youngish, being a minority, growing up in the inner city of Baltimore, and yes, about work integration with my life as a wife and mom. Why? Because my story means that everyone and anyone can succeed — not in spite of our differences, but perhaps in part because of them. The synergy of new ideas based on different backgrounds and perspectives is essential to future-proofing our various organizations.

Our profession is making progress and I am encouraged and inspired by the many initiatives and commitments underway. But are we there yet? The answer is, unfortunately, not yet. I say not yet because the unparalleled pace of change fueled by technology requires the best and brightest — across every component of diversity including race, age, gender, orientation, geography, religion, physical ability, socio-economic status, etc. There is no other option.

Before my term, I don’t know that I ever paid attention to diversity and inclusion as separate elements. But, over my tenure, I have developed an appreciation for Inclusion as the harder initiative. Why? Two reasons:

1. Diversity is easier. Not easy, but easier. Diversity is more about attracting different types of people, but it doesn’t go far enough. Inclusion is where we can reap big rewards by retaining, promoting and advancing all people. When we have inclusion, rather than just diversity, we strive to ensure no one group feels disenfranchised or threatened. However, many people shy away from inclusion, as it requires uncomfortable conversations and confronting biases head-on.

2. Inclusion is a verb. It doesn’t stop and is ongoing. There is no destination. I have heard numerous times from leaders that their organization is gender- and color-blind. But how can that be when organizations are made up of people? People who, in many instances, may not be aware of their biases? Organizations that believe Inclusion will work itself out without intervention will unfortunately not reap the full benefits of having a high-performing team. In the age of machines, a key way to avoid disruption is to ensure that various perspectives are considered and teams are challenged to think differently.

Next gen leaders and technology to pave the way

The great news is that there are two areas that will drive new initiatives and strategies for competitive differentiation in the workplace of the future: next-generation leaders and technology. These two areas were key discussion areas for me and provide a fast lane to an inclusive environment. Dozens of guest lectures at universities with our future CEOs, CFOs, managing partners, executive directors, etc., give me great confidence about their ability to handle inclusion.

Our millennial colleagues and Generation Z students are not shy about sharing their thoughts on what they expect from their work lives. Most are motivated not by money, but rather by corporate alignment with their personal mission, purpose and core values. So, when these generations value diversity and inclusion in their own lives, they expect no less in their careers. I have to admit that I find it fascinating that their collective sentiments are changing how firms and corporations approach talent management and social responsibility.

Technology is also a game-changer for diversity and inclusion initiatives, especially as it relates to technologies such as cloud, blockchain, Big Data, artificial intelligence, machine learning, augmented reality, Internet-of-Things, etc. With the adoption of these solutions, organizations require team members with digital skillsets. So, while 20 years of knowledge provides context, this technical knowledge will increasingly be included in new applications that will transform organizations, thus enabling an opportunity to reset — for everyone. Top leadership positions will be earned by those who leverage technology to add value inside their organizations, those who effectively lead people across diverse backgrounds and those who enhance their storytelling and problem-solving capabilities.

Dream big for an inclusive future

If we focus on inclusion, rather than just diversity, maybe one day there won’t even be a need for specific months to highlight the accomplishments of those who are different. We would instead appreciate our differences and celebrate the accomplishments of everyone, regardless of background, 365 days a year. Wishful thinking, I know, but right now progress is made up of small steps, and that includes cheering the loudest during opportunities to recognize the diversity around us, such as Black History Month and Women’s History Month. Diversity and inclusion as a new normal is an ideal worth striving for — one that Christine Ross, the first female to pass the CPA exam in 1898, and Mary T. Washington Wylie, the first African American female CPA in 1943, helped set in motion.

So, while we are not there yet, by working together, we can make a difference and lift as we climb. I am grateful to stand on the shoulders of the leaders who came before me, allies who are courageously adding their voices, the Maryland Association of CPAs and those mentors, coaches and sponsors — both men and women — who helped a little girl from the inner city of Baltimore grow up to become chairman of the world’s largest accountancy body.

MORE FROM ACCOUNTING TODAY