Racism in the profession is real — here's how to build diversity
Becoming a CPA is one of the biggest accomplishments of my life. I wish I could say racism is not something I have encountered in my career, but I can't. What can a Gen-X, Afro-Latina, Dominican-American CPA who has worn many hats share about how accounting professionals can contribute to social economic justice, equity and diversifying the profession? I have always been taught that social responsibility is part of being a CPA and leader. I am not here to lecture anyone on becoming an anti-racist or an ally. I am here to share with you how accounting professionals can make their contribution to being the change they want to see in the world.
When I read of the number of CPAs, accounting graduates and accounting program enrollees who are Black and Latino, I feel disappointed. Having attended and taught at schools that are part of the largest urban university in the United States, having had few business professors of color as a student, and not having met a CPA until I started taking accounting courses, I am observant of the spaces that I occupy as a professional and see that diversity is lacking and lagging. When I hear professionals of color talk about their success stories, I realize that it will take a lot of work to make my profession more diverse. This work cannot solely be done by people of color, who can be found anywhere in their capacities trying to mentor and sponsor everyone who asks and who may be exposed to racism and tokenism themselves. This work has to be done by everyone.
This work is not just about diversifying the profession, it is also about serving diverse stakeholders. CPAs are supposed to have the interest of the general public in mind. CPAs have a seat at many tables and can speak up and propose changes that promote social economic justice, one dollar at a time. Whether it is questioning salary disparity, asking colleagues to consider personal and professional development for their department’s non-C-Suite level staff, asking their fellow decision makers to choose plans and accounts that cause staff and other stakeholders to spend less money out of pocket, or pushing for financial literacy programs at work, CPAs are frequently presented with opportunities to enhance the economic wellbeing of others.
Throughout my career, I have had the pleasure of volunteering and being a member of organizations that are committed to social mobility, financial literacy, financial education and advocacy. If you are looking to make an impact, you can start where you are. Below are a few things you can do to help others live better financial lives and organizations retain and promote people of color.
A just and balanced budget
In academia, I constantly hear the term “decolonize the course.” I’ve heard of people revamping psychology courses and reperforming studies to include diverse students. I have heard of people who create open source, zero cost texts and use the stories of students’ lives as textbook examples. I will share that, while I am able to share accounting resources from minorities and women, I feel a bit jealous of academics in other disciplines who have more to work with. Maybe someday I will write a book of case studies about MWBE (Minority and Woman Business Enterprise) businesses. But until then, I recommend you try something such as decolonize the budget. Sounds like a harsh term, but bear with me a moment.
Accounting professionals can do the due diligence, ask the hard questions and intercede on behalf of stakeholders to ensure budgets are balanced and fair. As a CPA who has worn many hats, I have had many discussions about budgets. I have spoken to business owners about passing overhead to clients, spoken with nonprofits about making the case for funders and donors to cover overhead, and asked people in the C suite to select benefit plans that give their low-income employees less or no out of pocket expenses. I have also asked people to realign their department and organizational budgets with their organization’s missions and core values. I was able to do these things and more because being a diverse, emotionally intelligent CPA helps me gain the trust of people from all walks of life, from cross-functional teams, from community and stakeholders.
In every field, there are subject matter experts of every race, nationality and background. Yet some organizations seldom seem to retain services from contractors of color. As CPAs who are in charge of due diligence and stewards of funds that organizations should use for the benefit of all stakeholders, on occasion you will have to question the procurement process. I have seen firsthand while working with nonprofits in different capacities that even organizations whose missions are to advocate for people of color do not spend any or enough money retaining services from Black and Latino service providers.
I wish there would come a day when I no longer heard people say they only recruit from certain schools or hire people they know. I am all for networking and building strong business relationships with people and not asking for favors from people you just met, but I also believe people who are gatekeepers or hiring managers should open up their horizon so the profession can become more diverse. Go beyond diversity hiring quotas and give people a chance.
There are plenty of diverse business professional organizations and resource groups. There are stars at every college and university. People are always looking for personal and professional development. Instead of putting a few Black and female people on a glossy brochure, how about building strong business relationships with representatives of such organizations. I’m not talking about just asking an academic advisor or professor to connect you with their best student. I am talking about becoming a fixture, a partner.
Imagine for a moment if your organization sponsored a student accounting club annual event, or offered opportunities for students who are attending community college or are sophomores at a four-year college, opportunities to shadow some of your managers, visit your offices, etc. That would help students think outside the box, explore a career, get practical experience. Imagine if your organization went beyond having an ERG (Employee Resource Group) and actually created a diversity board to develop a strategic plan for how to create a more inclusive workplace where employees of color could be promoted and supported.
I can tell you I personally didn’t get into public accounting upon graduation because the people I interacted with only saw me as a number — a GPA that wasn’t a 4.0, a diversity hire quota, someone who upset them flooding their email inbox and voicemail with messages to follow up. I also used to work during club hours and was not able to go to accounting club meetings. I share this to say you need to make sure you make whatever programs you create accessible to nontraditional students of today. Students today are juggling families, businesses and schoolwork, while trying to land internships and attend networking events.
Lastly, in terms of recruiting, remember that you need to keep new hires engaged. I had several jobs in the past that didn’t have advancement opportunities but allowed me to work on interesting projects that helped me grow on a personal and professional basis. I enjoyed the visibility of working with cross-functional teams and learned a lot about the organizations. The days of someone feeling lucky just to have a job are over in a sense. I once heard a diversity professional say he asked a person why he wanted people to be friendly at work when he had a family and could go home to be around people who love him. If you want to hire and retain people who are not assimilated Americans, understand that the warmth and energy they receive or don’t receive from colleagues matters.
If you are a CPA who has been a formal or informal financial advisor, you may consider curating advisory services for women and minorities. When I say curate, I don’t mean a one-off course that gives bits and dabs on a financial topic. I mean creating something like a master class, a training program that will give participants the ability to enhance their financial knowledge and be able to make holistically lucrative decisions. There are a lot of free resources out there, but some are not robust or offered often enough to give MWBE business owners and leaders the high-caliber insight, advice and tools they need to excel.
They say knowledge is power. If you want to change people’s lives and help them have profitable businesses and leave legacies for their families, you will have to treat financial planning as a holistic experience, not a one-off conversation.
If you look online, you will find people who are not CPAs, bankers, financial planners or lawyers giving all sorts of financial advice. Some of these people mean well and just share superficial information. Others are trying to get a quick payday from selling get rich quick schemes. Others are supposedly some sort of coach. CPAs can save others a lot of time and headache by offering neutral, factual development and planning programs.
Volunteering and advocating
CPAs can help diversify the profession and help minority communities by volunteering and advocating in different capacities. Below I list a few ways CPAs can assist:
- Mentor high school and college students, newly minted professionals and professionals in transition.
- Mentor MWBE business owners.
- Present financial literacy workshops for communities.
- Participate in accounting-related hotlines.
- Visit middle schools and high schools to tell young folks about the accounting profession.
- Speak to senior citizens about fraud and abuse prevention.
- Commit a few hours a week for volunteer tax preparation for low-income individuals.
It is my hope that as a future-ready CPA, you become active in making the future of others brighter.