Stakeholders are calling on firms to improve workforce diversity. In a political and social environment where diversity in the workplace has taken on greater urgency, mentorship aids in the advancement and retention of Black accounting professionals in an accounting firm. Many employers are finding that instead of using just one type of mentor to develop people, they can use both formal and informal mentors, as well as sponsors, to promote success (see the sidebar, "Recommendations for Successful Mentoring").
Firm efforts to improve workforce diversity have yielded stagnant results, with little progress for advancement of Black professionals, especially into the higher levels of organizations. Even though the population of Black accountants and auditors in the United States has held steady at about 9% for the past two decades, the representation does not hold for Black accountants in public accounting firms (see the graphic, "Advancement of Blacks in Public Accounting"). While the portion of Black professional staff at firms doubled from 2000 to 2018, it's still just 4%. The portion of Black partners remains just 1%.
PROGRESS IS ELUSIVE
To measure the progress of Black accountants in the profession, the Center for Accounting Education (CAE) at Howard University has surveyed Black accountants for several years. The authors of this article used the CAE's 2006 and 2017 surveys to examine the progress. To provide comparability to non-Black accountants, the CAE surveyed members of 11 state CPA societies (Alabama, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina).
The sample used for this study includes accounting professionals working in public accounting who are Black, 178 in 2006 and 241 in 2017, and non-Black, 1,023 in 2019. The number of Black partners in public accounting in the survey include 15 in 2006 and 25 in 2017. The sample of Black accountants in public accounting surveyed in 2019 was too small (38) to use to re-perform the study. However, since an insignificant amount of time elapsed between 2017 and 2019 related to our population of interest, the authors expect the results to remain comparable.
The major takeaways from the findings of the three surveys are as follows:
- Advancement and retention challenges (see the table "Advancement and Retention Factors") for Black accountants in public accounting in 2017 had increased relative to 2006 as a result of:
- Not obtaining challenging assignments that help develop their career;
- Not having access to social networks that provide informal career advancement opportunities; and
- Not feeling accepted and welcomed (inclusion) by colleagues in their work environment.
- An area of improvement that was noted in 2017 relative to 2006 is the benefits Black accountants received from fruitful mentoring relationships in the work environment.
- The 2019 survey of non-Black accountants indicated higher satisfaction relative to Black accountants in 2017 in all four areas: assignments, social networks, work environment, and mentoring.
The survey findings indicate there is still room for improvement, even in mentoring, which has benefited Black accountants. A productive mentor/mentee relationship could even help overcome the advancement and retention challenges expressed.
WHY FOCUS ON MENTORING
Mentoring has been an effective strategy deployed by firms in the advancement and retention of Black accounting professionals. A mentoring relationship can exist between two people or within a group for the purpose of career development or navigating the workplace, or a particular issue. Often the relationship is mutually beneficial and nonevaluative, with all parties learning in a purposeful way through sharing knowledge and experiences. A mentor should help a mentee understand themselves, deconstruct feedback, and help develop the mentee's accountability. Although the survey questions ask about support received from mentors, the term "mentor" may differ based on personal experience. However, while the support of a mentor and a sponsor may blend, what remain clear are the needs of the mentee. To remain consistent with the survey responses, the term "mentor" is used in this article.
Mentoring support changes over time, as mentees and mentors both advance in their careers, to include elements of sponsorship. Academic research has shown that mentoring benefits mentees by reducing turnover, improving promotion rates, increasing salaries, providing just-in-time technical advice, sponsoring for stretch assignments and promotions, protecting and advising in high-risk situations, and offering empathy and counseling when difficulties arise. Mentoring also benefits mentors by providing them a sense of meaning in their work by passing on their knowledge and wisdom. A mentor-mentee relationship should be based on trust, effective communication, and a commitment to the relationship.
Discussions with diversity and inclusion (D&I) leaders at the largest public accounting firms revealed that firms have invested heavily in racial diversity initiatives, such as access to key experiences, career advising, sponsorship, and mentoring, during the period of the three surveys. Additionally, focus group discussions with Black business resource groups in the largest public accounting firms contributed to our understanding of how critical mentoring is to improve the factors that affect advancement and retention of Black accountants. These discussions have also influenced these recommendations.
SUPPORT THAT IS WORKING
Mentees receive a consistent level of support (see the green items noted in the table "Mentoring Support"), regardless of race, in the following areas:
- The provision of critical career advice and counsel;
- Advocacy on behalf of the mentee;
- Putting forward the mentee's name for new opportunities for advancement; and
- Helping the mentee better balance his or her work and personal life.
These equities are recognized and celebrated. In other areas (see the red items noted in the table "Mentoring Support"), support is inconsistent and improvement is needed.
WHERE SUPPORT IS FALLING SHORT
There are gaps in support for Black accountants in the following areas, listed in order of largest gap between Black accountants and non-Black accountants:
- Helping develop critical job skills;
- Providing help with technical issues;
- Opening the door to challenging assignments; and
- Helping mentees develop self-confidence and credibility.
Based on discussions with D&I leaders, focus group discussions with Black business resource groups, and focus groups from survey respondents, the following three recommendations are intended to directly and/or indirectly address the support gaps found in the surveys.
Assign formal mentors with intention
Non-Black accountants are nearly twice as likely to receive help developing critical job skills relative to the Black accountants surveyed. Additionally, non-Black accountants are much more likely to receive help with technical skills relative to Black accountants in the survey. In public accounting, developing critical job skills is essential, especially in the early years, for development and advancement.
To directly address the support gap of helping develop critical and technical job skills, firms need to assign formal mentors with intention. First, the relationship should be welcomed by both parties. It should be a mutually respectful relationship where the mentee is comfortable asking for help and the mentor is willing and able to provide the assistance needed. Second, the intentional assignment of a mentor should include a mentor who is well regarded, politically influential, and in a position of power in the firm. As shared by a focus group participant, various aspects of mentor support are needed, and it distills down to advancement and retention: "Assigned mentors were not proactive in assisting with my career navigation." The nature and caliber of mentors for Black accountants must be addressed, as they are not receiving the same level of support as their non-Black colleagues in the area of technical and critical job skills.
Most respondents agree that the best time to establish mentoring relationships is during the early stage of a mentee's career. The timing is critical because a new graduate is learning about the firm, colleagues, the business, and the industry. With so much to digest, in addition to performing their daily responsibilities, it can be reassuring having a mentor to guide/navigate and provide constructive feedback.
Mandate early sponsorship
Non-Black accountants surveyed are almost 50% more likely to receive support for opening doors to challenging assignments than the Black accountants who participated. Challenging assignments allow one to develop, demonstrate, and advance skill sets — all requisites for advancement within the organization. Not having a sponsor advocating for your assignments may hinder growth. In fact, one of our focus group members relayed how important obtaining certain skill sets was to her next promotion: "Up for promotion with five other colleagues; needed to check certain boxes such as supervisory skills; (she) asked managers for opportunities to get those skills but (was) personally denied."
To ensure that Black accountants are receiving developmental assignments, we recommend having a sponsor appointed to them after the sponsor has had the opportunity to evaluate them during internships or early first-year engagements. Waiting any longer than a couple of years after their entry into the firm to assign a sponsor for a Black professional may simply be too late. Based on early assignments and interactions with engagement teams, the career trajectory may already be set, and not necessarily in a positive way. To combat this problem, firm leaders will eventually need to consider moving from only mentors to both mentors and sponsors for their Black professional hires.
Some firms may argue that they have already instituted a process to ensure that all staff have equal opportunity on assignments. Currently, this policy may be implemented in a check-the-box mentality where diversity on the team is ensured; however, to be truly developmental, challenging assignments should be made early and such that Black accounting professionals are also being groomed to eventually run the engagement. Otherwise, their mobility and visibility within the firm will be limited. It is important to note that the assignment process created by the firm may not be enough to prevent young Black accountants from falling through the cracks, and sponsors should also be designated and empowered to support these professionals.
Support establishment of informal mentors
Non-Black accountants are more likely to receive support for developing self-confidence and credibility than Black accountants. Credibility within the firm leads to being placed on challenging assignments, improving results of performance and improving chances of being promoted.
Development of self-confidence and credibility can be aided by formal mentors and sponsors; however, informal mentors may be just as important. To assist staff with establishing impactful informal mentors, firms should provide social networking opportunities with senior leaders so Black professionals have opportunities to establish these relationships.
Social networks include nonwork events where colleagues gather, such as parties, happy hours, and sporting events. This is the only area of support that was rated much higher by Black accountants than by non-Black accountants. Being a minority in a majority group firm, one does not always have access to the same social networks as one's non-Black peers. The professionals surveyed found that having a mentor and/or sponsor to introduce you to the "right" social network played an important role in achieving a sense of belonging, gaining access to informal information exchange, building relationships with colleagues, and obtaining other benefits.
Black accountants need to be invested in getting to know their colleagues, which means taking the initiative to engage themselves. Senior Black partners recommend that Black accountants socialize: "They underestimate the importance of the social aspect. It's not enough to put your head down and get your work done. You'll get more support if you share. Don't miss out on social events with the team. You miss out on the opportunity to learn about your team or for your team to learn about you if you don't integrate the social aspect. It's a whole lot easier to ask someone for an opportunity if they know you."
Our survey results and focus group discussions indicate that Black accounting professionals are keenly interested in gaining access to the right networks and understand the impact it will have on their success. However, the inclusion is only effective when it's sincere and consistent, as shared by one focus group participant: "I had strong formal relationships with my managers and partner and attend social functions such as happy hours and lunch, yet often learned of my specific partner or manager having social events that excluded, perhaps unintentionally, African Americans."
Formal and informal mentors, as well as early sponsorship, are needed for career advancement. Firms can assign mentors, but a strategy needs to be devised to aid in the development of informal mentors. To have the opportunity to establish informal mentors, Black mentees need social networking opportunities with higher-ups. Social networking opportunities afford all parties an opportunity to acquire credibility and self-confidence with peers.
This research provides insight and actions that firms and Black accountants can take to capitalize on the success of the mentoring/sponsoring relationships.
Recommendations for successful mentoring
Assign formal mentors with intention
The intentional assignment of a mentor should include a mentor who is well regarded, influential, and in a position of power in the firm. The relationship should be welcomed by both parties. Formal mentors support mentees in developing critical job skills and providing help with technical issues.
Mandate early sponsorship
Sponsorship should begin in the first year on the job, after the sponsor has an opportunity to observe abilities during internships or early first-year assignments. Sponsors will open doors for high-profile and challenging assignments. Waiting a couple of years may be too late, as the trajectory of the Black professional may have been decided by then.
Support establishment of informal mentors
To assist staff with establishing impactful informal mentorships, provide social networking opportunities with senior leaders so Black professionals have opportunities to establish these relationships.
About the authors
Mithu Dey, CPA, Ph.D., is an associate professor, Lucy Lim, Ph.D., is an associate professor, and Frank Ross is the director of the Center for Accounting Education, all at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Ken Tysiac, the JofA's editorial director, at Kenneth.Tysiac@aicpa-cima.com.
- "Assessment Is Key to a Successful D&I Effort," JofA, March 2021
- "Challenges Continue for African-American Accountants," JofA, Jan. 2019
- "What We Can Do to Increase the Number of Black CPAs," JofA, April 12, 2021
- CPA Firm Sponsorship Success Toolkit. Promote and support the success of women to advance the profession together
- Share. Learn. Grow. Mentor. A how-to guide from the AICPA Women's Initiatives Executive Committee