How can diversity be improved in the CPA profession?

BY KEN TYSIAC
May 21, 2013

Even as members of the recently created National Commission on Diversity & Inclusion work to improve opportunities for under-represented minorities in the CPA profession, they are reminded of just how much work needs to be done.

During a panel discussion of commission members held Monday at the AICPA Council meeting, Ed Ramos, CPA, described being contacted recently by a woman representing a not-for-profit organization trying to hire a CPA firm.

Ramos, a shareholder at Dwyer, Pemberton and Coulson, a firm with about 30 employees in Tacoma, Wash., said the nonprofit had sent out a request for proposals. But after reviewing the firms that were candidates, the board of directors sent the representative back out with instructions to find a firm with a minority partner for the organization to consider.

“She had to go out of her way, outside her own city, to come over to Tacoma where my firm is located, to find a firm [like mine] that had a minority partner,” Ramos said.

The CPA profession has struggled to make significant gains in attracting, retaining and advancing under-represented minorities, despite efforts and initiatives that have been in place for decades. In an effort to improve diversity, the AICPA and leaders from throughout the profession last year launched the National Commission on Diversity & Inclusion.

Goals for the commission include discovering best practices and coordinating efforts to improve the recruiting, advancement and retention of under-represented minority CPAs. The commission’s early activities have included forming three separate working groups devoted to retention, advancement and research and metrics.

The research and metrics group is performing a climate survey to measure the tone at the top and the culture of acceptance and awareness that exist within the profession, said commission member George Krull, CPA, CGMA, president of the AICPA Foundation and a retired Grant Thornton partner. The survey is expected to be completed in the late summer or early fall.

“On the advancement best practices group, we said, ‘If this has been talked about for a while, how can we fast track it? How can we leverage the research that’s already been done?’” said commission member Lisa Ong, director of minority retention and advancement for PwC in the Dallas area. “There were two areas we looked at. One was leadership development. And then in the area of sponsorship, how can we boil that down to what are the best … behaviors that make a difference?”

Commission member Ralph Thomas, CGMA, the CEO and executive director of the New Jersey Society of CPAs, said the identification of best practices should be particularly helpful to small and medium-size firms.

“Many times, they don’t have the infrastructure to devote to having a full-time diversity initiative, or someone whose specific job that is,” Thomas said. “…It will, I think, be helpful to see some practices and things that they can use and infuse into their organizations, so that they don’t have to start from scratch.”

Kim Drumgo, the vice chair of the commission and the director of diversity and inclusion at the AICPA, said the commission is also working to create a “maturity model” that would allow firms and organizations to plot their progress with respect to implementing diversity.

Photo: Sam Kittner

Business case and best practices

Panel members said increasing diversity is essential for the profession for a number of reasons, including that CPAs need to be ready to serve their clients as the percentage of under-represented minorities who control entrepreneurial capital increases. For Ramos, the business case for diversity is properly representing clients and providing quality service.

“It is a business imperative,” Krull said.

Thomas said increasing the diversity and the pipeline of minority CPAs represents one opportunity to counteract the effects of Baby Boomers leaving the profession in the years ahead.

Ong agreed that diversity is intertwined with succession issues facing the profession. “Diversity matters to our clients. It matters to our people, and it really matters a lot to our leadership when they think about next-generation leaders and what it’s going to take to serve our global clients,” she said. “The fact that we’re focused on diversity has got to be embedded in our culture, not an add-on.”

Throughout the discussion, panel members discussed some of the characteristics that need to be in place for diversity to increase in the profession. These included:

  • Proper tone at the top. Panelists said many leaders of the profession are committed to diversity, and they praised the AICPA for taking a leadership role.
  • Mentoring. Sponsors and leaders who are in positions of influence can help minority CPAs advance. Internships are another powerful tool, a member of the audience said during the panel discussion.
  • Role models. Getting minority students interested in becoming CPAs before college is easier when successful minority CPAs are held up as role models, Thomas said.


A key, Thomas said, is getting people throughout the profession coordinated in the effort. He was asked why diversity remains elusive in the CPA profession despite minority recruitment, development and scholarship programs that date back many years.

Using the example of a rowing team in one boat, Thomas said it’s important to get everyone paddling in the same direction at the same rate in order to get things moving. That’s what the National Commission on Diversity & Inclusion was created to do.

And AICPA chairman Rich Caturano, CPA, CGMA, challenged everybody to get involved.

“This is a monumental challenge for our profession,” Caturano said. “Unless we all get engaged, and we all become part of the solution, we’re never going to get anywhere on this.”

Ken Tysiac ( ktysiac@aicpa.org ) is a JofA senior editor.

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