With the beginning of a year – 2020 – that not so long ago seemed like the distant future, I’ve been thinking about my own career and how things have changed in my profession since I first joined the accounting field three decades ago. Back then, it seemed like an African American woman like me was in uncharted territory, as at the time African Americans made up just 1 percent of certified public accountants.
What’s astounding (and distressing) is that all these years later, I feel like that territory is still largely uncharted. According to a 2019 Trends report from the AICPA, last year showed that the percentage of African-Americans CPAs was just 4 percent. So, after a generation of high-minded rhetoric about diversity, we’ve risen just three percentage points since the late 1980s and are still massively under-represented. How can we fix this?
As with so much else in society, the problem starts in the classroom. In this case, I mean the university classroom, where lip service to the merits of diversity seemingly doesn’t translate into meaningful action to draw minority students into professions where they’re under-represented, and ensure they have the support they need to stay the course. As Director of Diversity and Inclusion at IMA, I travel to many Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) with great finance programs and excited, ambitious students. I’ve also spoken with many students and faculty who attend events sponsored by our partners, such as the National Association of Black Accountants (NABA), the Association of Latino Professionals for America (ALPFA), and The PhD project. Based on my experiences, I recommend three ways that Accounting faculty and students alike can help enhance D&I in our profession early enough to make a real difference in young professionals’ lives.
- Create D&I roles on campus. I was once invited to a university’s Accounting club by a young woman whose specific focus was locating successful people in the field from diverse backgrounds to come speak to students on campus. Having someone whose job is to promote D&I in this way is a great start to taking diversity seriously. This can be done by both student organizations and Accounting departments, with the latter creating Chief Diversity Officer positions dedicated to fostering D&I.
- Launch mentorship programs. Forging a personal connection between minority students and professionals is key to driving D&I efforts. To this end, Finance and Accounting departments can designate professors and administrators as mentors to students. They can help them with the barriers students of color so often face that can’t be addressed through regular classroom exercises.
- Establish D&I advisory groups. Finally, Finance and Accounting departments can help change the tone and culture by appointing boards comprised of faculty, students and alumni to openly discuss ongoing efforts around D&I and how to measure success. This also gives students a powerful voice in the overall initiative, which can often seem remote and detached to their everyday concerns.
Most importantly, truly bringing diversity to our profession relies on taking the perspective that changing the culture is paramount. It’s not about “ticking off boxes” and setting quotas that aim to increase diversity but creating an environment in which students of color feel welcome and encouraged, and not intimidated by the lack of diversity with which the Accounting profession still sadly struggles. This is the oft-neglected “I” of D&I, putting inclusion at the heart of the initiative rather than focusing narrowly on the numbers.
The Accounting profession has a long way to go where D&I is concerned. But even if the numbers still aren’t where we want them to be, we’re well on our way to changing the way we think about diversity in our daily lives. The college campuses where the accountants of the future are prepared for their careers is the best place to start.
At IMA, we recently created a page on our website that focuses exclusively on D&I and tackles this and other topics related to the subject. The page is accessible at https://tinyurl.com/imadandi.