Art of Accounting: On the basis of sex

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I just watched for the second time the movie “On the Basis of Sex” about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and found some things in it that I would like to share here.

She graduated in 1959 at the top of her law school class, yet wasn’t able to get a job with a law firm because she was a woman. She got an appointment as a judge’s clerk and eventually a job at Rutgers Law School when a black professor retired and the school couldn't find another black professor, so they figured they would hire a woman (per the movie). This happened the same year I graduated from high school — not so long ago (as far as I am concerned). Quotas for African Americans and discrimination against women in law firms were openly practiced. In college, I had one accounting professor who was a woman while the rest were white men. I recall now that there were no women or black accountants at any of the firms where I worked from 1963 through 1969.

I also recall the first employee I hired when I started my own practice in 1969, and she was a black woman. Her race and sex never entered my mind. She was a bookkeeper at a client that I worked with. She told me she was going to quit since she wanted to become a CPA at the same time that I decided to quit my job and start my own accounting business. I hired her because I was going to need someone and knew her ability. I cannot recall any bias against her among my clients. I hired her because she was qualified and I needed someone. I do not think I was a pioneer or trail blazer — I acted in my own best interests by hiring the best qualified person I knew. And that is what is happening now across the profession; it started late, but it has started. The best qualified people are being hired.

In June 1898, Christine Ross passed the CPA exam with the second highest grade in New York State. She was granted her CPA certificate in December 1899 — it took the male board a year and a half to decide whether they should give the CPA certificate to a woman!

In 1921, John Cromwell, Jr. became a CPA in New Hampshire and was the first black CPA in America. He lived in Washington, D.C., but that district and the surrounding states had an experience requirement to sit for the exam and no one would hire a black person. New Hampshire did not have an experience requirement so he went there and passed the exam. He previously graduated from Dartmouth in 1906 as the best student in science and later became the comptroller of Howard University with a distinguished career. In 1960, some 40 years after Cromwell became a CPA, he was still the only black CPA in Washington, D.C.!

Today, there is considerable consternation that women and blacks are underrepresented in the partnership ranks of CPA firms. That is a fact. I believe the primary reason is they started their careers in public accounting much later than men. I do not believe there is the type of discrimination now that existed at the start of my career. Today, I see public accounting firms hiring whoever is qualified regardless of gender, race, sexual preference or identity.

While we need time to allow the numbers to catch up, we can do some things to speed it up. Some of these are more effective mentoring (see my column on mentoring female staff), sponsorship and better coaching. We need to compensate for the lack of current effectiveness in these areas because of the dearth of applicable role models to provide assistance. The current situation is still not fair, and while it’s important to remember how we got here, dwelling on that or the present circumstances is not going to result in the needed changes. Conscious effort to help will.

I certainly do not have all the answers and likely not even close to all of the questions, but if each of us took on the responsibility to help two young people in an underrepresented group, I believe we can make a difference and the needed changes will occur a little quicker. At some point, the partnership ranks will be made up with the proper proportions. We should not set aside the impatience, but we should deal with it by getting started with multiple one-on-one mentoring, coaching, sponsorships or career boosts to help those we work with or who seek us out. Get started. It’s time!

Edward Mendlowitz, CPA, is partner at WithumSmith+Brown, PC, CPAs. He is on the Accounting Today Top 100 Influential People List. He is the author of 24 books, including “How to Review Tax Returns,” co-written with Andrew D. Mendlowitz, and “Managing Your Tax Season, Third Edition.” Ed also writes a twice-a-week blog addressing issues that clients have at www.partners-network.com along with the Pay-Less-Tax Man blog for Bottom Line. Ed is an adjunct professor in the MBA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University teaching end user applications of financial statements. Art of Accounting is a continuing series where Ed shares autobiographical experiences with tips that he hopes can be adopted by his colleagues. Ed welcomes practice management questions and can be reached at (732) 743-4582 or emendlowitz@withum.com.

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Gender issues Gender discrimination Diversity and equality Practice management Ed Mendlowitz