A History of Determination

Minority CPAs have come a long way, but true diversity has yet to be achieved.

In the profession’s early years, despite being highly educated, CPAs of color faced challenges in meeting the profession’s experience requirements and in practicing accountancy. “For most of the twentieth century, virtually no whites would hire and train an African American to become a CPA, justifying this by claiming that clients would not tolerate an African American’s involvement in their financial affairs,” says Theresa A. Hammond in her book A White-Collar Profession: African American Certified Public Accountants since 1921 (University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

For example, John Cromwell, the first black CPA, graduated with honors from Dartmouth College and earned a master’s degree but chose to teach high school math because of limited practice opportunities. Ultimately, in 1930 he became controller of Howard University.

Through the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, as the number of black CPAs grew slowly, they provided younger African Americans with opportunities to gain experience to sit for the CPA exam as well as practice accountancy. Arthur J. Wilson, the second African American CPA and the first in Illinois, gave that chance to many in Chicago, including Mary T. Washington, the first African American woman CPA, who eventually owned her own accounting practice (see her obituary ).

Mary Thelma Washington, 1906–2005

Mary T. Washington, who became the first female African American CPA in 1943, died this past summer, less than a year away from her own 100th birthday. Early in her career, she worked as the assistant to Arthur J. Wilson, the country’s second African American CPA, at Binga State Bank of Chicago, one of the country’s largest African-American-owned banks. Wilson encouraged her to pursue a business degree at Northwestern University and helped her obtain the experience needed to become a CPA.

Washington opened her own accounting firm in 1939, largely serving small black-owned companies. Many white-owned firms would not hire blacks, and she is credited with giving numerous aspiring African American accountants the chance to meet the experience requirement for becoming CPAs. She soon built a thriving business serving Chicago’s large black middle class. Her firm, which ultimately became Washington, Pittman, and McKeever, grew into one of the largest black-owned CPA firms in the country. Clients included Fuller Products and (early in his career) Muhammad Ali, as well as the city of Chicago, the Chicago Public Library and the Chicago Housing Authority. Washington retired in 1985.

Source: A White-Collar Profession: African American Certified Public Accountants since 1921 (University of North Carolina Press, 2002) by Theresa Hammond.

After Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration barred discrimination in federal government and federal contractor employment, some of its members met with Jesse Blayton, Georgia’s first black CPA and a Morehouse College professor who had established the college’s business department, to discuss New Deal programs from an African American perspective. Known as the “dean of Negro accountants” through his role as chair of Atlanta University’s accounting department and his position with the Colored Division of the National Youth Administration program, Blayton is credited with inspiring generations of black CPAs.

With the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, changes began. In the late 1960s, the AICPA founded the Committee on Recruitment from Minority Groups. In 1969 the Journal of Accountancy published the results of a study, “The Black Minority in the CPA Profession,” by committee member Bert N. Mitchell, CPA, that showed the ratio of blacks in the accounting profession—150 out of 100,000—was much lower than in law or medicine.

Mitchell himself graduated at the top of his accounting class at the City University of New York in 1963 and, like many minority CPAs at the time, gained practical experience working for small Jewish-owned CPA firms. But upon his graduation, “25 firms had refused to hire him, usually attributing their decision to their client’s attitudes,” Hammond says. He eventually found work as the first black employee of J.K. Lasser and Co., a national accounting firm, and later founded Mitchell & Titus LLP in New York.

Firms ultimately did begin hiring minority CPAs, recruiting at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Changes were necessary at these schools, however, because accreditation by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) requires that most of a school’s faculty have either a PhD or, in the case of accounting, a combination of a CPA certificate and an MBA, as well as limits on the teaching load. Many HBCUs could not meet the requirement in the 1960s.

With the help of a $600,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, CPA Milton Wilson, whose career included teaching stints at several HBCUs, revamped the Texas Southern University (TSU) business department, which had three instructors in 1947, by adding two full professors, five associate professors and four assistant professors. In 1967 TSU became the first HBCU to receive AACSB accreditation. Wilson’s success eventually led him to a position as the first dean of the Howard University School of Business, which earned its AACSB accreditation in 1980, making Wilson the only dean to lead two HBCUs to AACSB accreditation.

The AICPA committee on minority recruitment geared two early programs toward helping HBCUs increase the number of CPAs and PhDs on their faculties. A scholarship program provided funds to hire instructors on an interim basis so that promising individuals could pursue PhDs in accounting. A faculty summer seminar, focused on building teaching skills, served the needs of HBCUs and institutions with large Hispanic enrollment, and offered CPE credits and networking opportunities, says Dan Hobson, AICPA manager of minority initiatives.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, CPAs of color began to form their own networks. In 1969 the National Association of Black Accountants (NABA) formed to provide support for black accountants in public accounting firms (for information, go to www.nabainc.org ).

“A meeting was held in my living room,” recalls NABA founder Frank Ross, CPA, who would become a managing partner with KPMG, “and nine of us formed the association. The idea was to help each other achieve success, to develop a network and foster mentoring.” In the same era, Henry Wilfong started the National Association of Minority CPA Firms with a $12,000 grant from the Nixon administration’s Office of Minority Business Enterprises. “That really was a catalyst for the rapid growth of minority CPA firms in the 1970s,” because of the many networking opportunities it offered and its efforts to get government “set-aside work” for minority firms, Mitchell says.

In 1972 CPA Gilbert Vasquez helped found a group to help Latinos compete for government contracts and become active on AICPA committees, known today as the Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting (ALPFA). ALPFA ( www.alpfa.org ) currently is developing a Women of ALPFA program to address the special challenges that face Latino women. ALPFA CEO Manuel Espinosa says the group also is encouraging CPAs to become business leaders and consider pursuing careers as CFOs or CEOs. The organization’s focus on leadership and professional development is meant to help Latinos become confident they can be very successful, he says.

More recently, the National Asian American Society of Accountants was founded to strengthen networking opportunities and enhance Asian Americans’ influence in the profession, says founding member Maggie Sun. It includes members of firms of all sizes and representatives of other organizations, such as the National Council of Philippine American Canadian Accountants and the Chinese American Society of CPAs.

While much progress has been made, the percentage of minority CPAs still remains low. The AICPA’s Supply of Accounting Graduates and the Demand for Public Accounting Recruits showed that only 7% of CPAs employed by accounting firms were minorities, “highlighting that we are a long way from parity,” says the AICPA’s Hobson.

Over the past three decades, major AICPA initiatives have included raising awareness about the CPA profession in minority communities and increasing the number and visibility of role models through partnerships with groups such as INROADS and Management Leadership for Tomorrow—both of which seek to encourage minority participation in business. At the same time, the Institute’s “Be A Star in Business” advertising initiative and the “Start Here. Go Places” recruiting initiative “create an effective combination to expose young people of color to the accounting profession,” Hobson says.

Since the days of Jesse Blayton, accounting faculty members have served as mentors for minority CPAs. To that end, the AICPA Fellowships for Minority Doctoral Students program ( www.aicpa.org/members/ ) seeks to enable minorities to succeed in the profession and academia and to increase the number of minority role models for accounting students.

To help improve the retention of minority CPAs, Ross, who recently retired from KPMG, is heading up the new Howard University Center for Accounting Education, which will study the experiences of minority CPAs and implement programs based on that research. It will offer first-year accountants training focused on the soft skills they will need to be successful, including working in teams, building a network and “knowing what to expect in a high-powered environment with high-energy and high-achieving people around them,” says Ross. There also will be CPA exam and management training courses.

“If you stay longer in firms you have a better chance to be more successful,” says Ross, who became a KPMG partner in 1977 and managing partner of the Washington, D.C., office and the mid-Atlantic area in 1996. “To have a world-class workforce, you have to make sure you are dealing with the issues facing the minority groups,” he says.

What will it take to create change? “I see the effort to diversify the accounting profession as a combination of initiatives,” says George S. Willie, CPA, managing partner of Bert Smith & Co. in Washington, D.C., and a member of the AICPA board of directors. “Educators have to be an integral part of our efforts. There has to be an intensified outreach program to academia. The families of minority students must promote commerce, accounting and finance as alternatives to the ministry, medicine and law as important professions. Equally critical is the involvement of mature and accomplished finance and accounting professionals. Professionals of ethnic minorities are clear evidence that with hard work, the right relationships and the proper focus, there is much to be attained in the accounting profession.”

Change will be in the best interest of the profession as a whole. “Firms will benefit because striving for diversity is simply the right thing to do,” says Quinton Booker, CPA, professor and chairman of the accounting department at Jackson State University, Mississippi. “In the long run, I have never known anything other than good to be derived from doing the right thing. And firms serve diverse clients. Diversity in the ranks at the firm has the potential for a better connection when offering services to a diverse client base.”

The bottom line, says Booker, is that the profession needs talent to sustain itself. “Professions flourish not because of their ability to handle today’s challenges, although this is important. Professions flourish when they have the intellectual capital to anticipate and prepare for what lies ahead. A well-qualified, diverse profession will allow us to continue to exist in the future.”

Phaedra Brotherton is a freelance writer.

Women at Full Throttle

Today, women constitute 30% of the AICPA’s membership, or about 108,000 members, and that percentage will continue to increase as their presence in accounting education programs rises. Women now make up 57% of accounting graduates and 54% of new hires in public accounting firms. In 1905, when the profession balked at the very idea of female CPAs, the story was much different.

The first female to pass the CPA examination was Christine Ross, who sat for the exam in New York in June 1898. The New York board of regents debated for 18 months whether to award Ross a CPA certificate. The publication Public Accountant echoed their consternation in a July 1899 editorial that said, “Like all other innovations, the Examining Boards in New York and Pennsylvania have to put up with many difficulties until proper amendments can be determined on and passed. This woman affair is only one of the many pitfalls which could not be foreseen when the acts were passed.” Ross finally was awarded certificate number 143 in December 1899.

During World Wars I and II, female CPAs became important members of the business world who filled in while their male counterparts joined the military. Other historical events also helped women’s entrance into the accounting world. The Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 increased the demand for accountants to ensure the public’s confidence in investing in securities and increased government regulation extended the need for additional accounting staff.

Since then, the path to success has been challenging as women pioneered their skills in executive suites and boardrooms. Economics and world events continued to shape women’s entre into the profession and every positive shift in the economy creating jobs brought an opportunity for women to claim their space. But with each downturn, it was the male breadwinner who typically kept his job. By 1952 CPA licenses had been issued to 757 women. While not exactly a boom for women, it was a step in the right direction.

Colleges and universities created one hurdle by not accepting women into their accounting programs. Linda Bergen, vice-president of corporate accounting policy at Citigroup in New York, reports that her college was not supportive of her decision to enter the program in 1976. “When I was in graduate school for an MBA in accounting at New York University, I was told by the placement director that I would never get a job with any of the Big 8 accounting firms because I was a woman, older and had children. I decided that could not be correct and that if I worked hard and did well, I would get job offers. In fact, I finished first in my class in accounting and got job offers from all of the Big 8. This taught me that there would be lots of naysayers and that to succeed a woman needs to have excellent credentials and lots of gumption.”

Finding a position that fulfilled the experience requirement was another challenge. Ellen Feaver of Montana-based Anderson ZurMuehlen also faced disbelievers in her career. One of her first successes was “actually being hired by Price Waterhouse in 1967 as the first female CPA in the Washington, D.C., office, where there were hundreds of men. This was at a time when national firm interview booths at the University of Oklahoma had signs by their sign-up sheets indicating they did not interview women.” Her career led to various positions in state government in Montana and finally to her current role as consultant with Employee Benefit Resources LLP, the human resource division of Anderson ZurMuehlen.

Bergen’s on-the-job experiences also were discouraging. “I worked for partners who would repeatedly ask me why I did not get a ‘normal’ job, so I could be home with my family more. My response to these and other barriers was always to do excellent work. I thought that excellence would win over the doubters.” She was right; before long she headed the public and regulatory reporting departments at J.P. Morgan & Co., where she was responsible for SEC and Federal Reserve filings, as well as risk-based capital and analysis of consolidated financial results. She subsequently led the accounting policies department at J.P. Morgan for eight years, following an 11-year career at Coopers & Lybrand, specializing in financial institutions.

Titles VII and IX of the Civil Rights Act, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act and the Equal Pay Act all enhanced opportunities for women in the business world. Ultimately, 1986 marked the year in which women accounting graduates first made up 50% of graduating classes.

Both Bergen and Feaver have advice for new CPAs. Feaver suggests: “Understand who you are and what your goals are. If a female CPA has talent and works hard, the pathways to success are many. You can have the kind of career you wish. You can equip yourself to pursue the job you want. Don’t be shy about asking for opportunities and experiences.”

Bergen cautions: “While there is a level playing field for women entering the accounting profession today, they still may find inequities at higher levels. Because of the population dynamics (that is, an aging workforce and a higher proportion of women in the workforce and in accounting majors in business schools), the profession is forced to value the women they employ and look for ways to keep them. This gives women some leverage in negotiating working conditions that can enable them to balance their work and personal lives.”

The AICPA is dedicated to enhancing the success of women CPAs. In 1989, the board of directors appointed a special committee to recommend strategies to strengthen the upward mobility of professional women in public accounting, industry, government and academe. The special committee has evolved into today’s AICPA Work/Life and Women’s Initiatives Executive Committee, which focuses on promoting a culture within the accounting profession of work/life effectiveness and the retention and development of women.

The committee’s list of accomplishments include

Surveying the profession from 1993 to the present to track trends in women’s advancement and employment and work/life policies.

Two best-selling editions of Promoting Your Talent: A Guidebook for Women and Their Firms, by Nancy Baldiga, and numerous articles.

Conferences, such as the AICPA Women’s Summit.

Working with state CPA societies in Illinois and New Mexico to honor Women to Watch.

Producing work/life videos.

Developing a brochure, Mentoring Program Guidelines.

This month the AICPA will install its third female chair, Leslie Murphy of Plante & Moran, Southfield, Mich., another indication of the AICPA’s commitment to valuing women in the profession. The number of women serving on public company boards (which rose to 13.6% in 2003 from 9.6% in 1995) and in corporate executive ranks (which jumped to 15.7% in 2003 from 8.7% in 1995) is a tribute to women pioneers such as Feaver and Bergen. They did the hard work of forging the way for all women CPAs who followed by breaking down barriers and gaining admiration and respect.

—Barbara Vigilante

BARBARA VIGILANTE is manager of work/life and women’s initiatives at the AICPA. Ms. Vigilante is an employee of the AICPA and her views, as expressed above, do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute. Official positions are determined through certain specific committee procedures, due process and deliberation.

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