Accounting profession continues to zero in on DEI issues

By Ken Tysiac

Leaders of the accounting profession have demonstrated a heightened commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as this issue has grown exponentially in prominence over the past year.

George Floyd’s death one year ago and other incidents of racism brought about social unrest that deeply affected people everywhere. Although diversity and inclusion has been on the radar for leaders in the accounting profession for many years, their scrutiny has intensified in the past 365 days.

“It hit home for people,” said Crystal Cooke, director–Diversity & Inclusion at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants. “People had ‘aha moments’ and were reacting in a way that I thought was refreshing to see. I think deep down people always knew they needed to be doing more in this space, but now they are taking steps toward action.”

Meaningful improvement in DEI in the accounting profession will not occur overnight and will take more than a year to accomplish. It takes time for motivated leaders to develop effective strategies and programs to implement a diverse and inclusive workforce, and then additional time is needed for those initiatives to have an impact.

But there are tangible signs that the profession has increased its focus on DEI:

  • In early April 2020, 58 CEOs at accounting-related organizations had signed the CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion pledge. As of May 2021, the number of CEOs (from accounting-related organizations) who have committed to take measurable action in advancing diversity and inclusion in their workplace has risen to 94, and that number continues to grow.
  • Since June 2020, the Association member-facing D&I team has met with over 60 member firms, individual members, state societies, and other accounting-related organizations. In addition, Kimberly Ellison-Taylor, CPA, CGMA, has handled more than 20 such meetings with firms, members, and others. She is a former AICPA chair whose term as chair of the AICPA National Commission on Diversity & Inclusion begins Wednesday. The Association’s D&I team also has been requested to present on DEI to over 40 accounting-related events for organizations/firms, often with hundreds of viewers in attendance.

“It was time to move beyond hashtags and good intentions, to move beyond silent support,” said Ellison-Taylor, the CEO of KET Solutions, a consulting firm based in the Washington, D.C./Baltimore area. “In response, many firms are stepping up in a big way. The connection between the hearts and the minds became more clear. Firm leaders sought a much better understanding of the challenges faced by their team members. Allies across the profession expected more while clients demanded that their business partners share their values.”

Ellison-Taylor said leaders of the accounting profession were working to improve DEI in the profession long before the events of the past year brought these issues to the forefront. But she said firms had not moved beyond the surface level in many of their efforts.

Leaders understood the need for a great culture and high-performing talent but weren’t completely clear that their team members were experiencing the “great firm environment” differently, Ellison-Taylor said. “Firm leaders realized that they needed to more fully embrace an inclusive culture in order to achieve a sense of belonging and trust. As a profession that thrives on data, we must be willing to review our recruiting, hiring, promotions, compensation, work assignments, and promotions if we want to make a lasting difference beyond the next unfortunate tragedy.”

She added: “I am optimistic that together we will achieve meaningful change. Already, we have noted more recognitions and promotions of diverse team members who were ready for advancement but needed sponsorship to get to the next level.”

Meanwhile, the members of the AICPA National Commission on Diversity & Inclusion have also been thinking about what they can do differently. As a volunteer committee, there is consensus that more work needs to be done to make change at the systemic level, and in the pipeline into the profession, starting at the beginning of the pipeline.

Research has shown that a good number of people who study accounting either knew someone who was an accountant or learned about it in a high school accounting class. Students from diverse populations often do not have that exposure, and the commission wants to change that. The members of the commission hope that accounting professionals can start going back into high schools, change the awareness level, and increase the diverse pipeline.

As leaders in the accounting profession move from inspiration to implementation with respect to DEI, Cooke and Ellison-Taylor say that in addition to focusing on the pipeline, members of the profession should be working on addressing retention and advancement challenges in the following ways:

  • Understanding the business case for diversity and inclusion. Numerous studies have established the efficacy of diverse teams in the business environment; ethnic- and gender-diverse organizations perform significantly better. Understanding this and confirming your commitment to advance DEI throughout the organization is the first step toward meaningful change. Ellison-Taylor is presenting a conference session on this important issue at AICPA & CIMA ENGAGE 2021 in July.
  • Advancing women in the workplace. Today, women have more opportunities to advance into leadership positions in the profession, but their numbers are still far behind those of men. Women of color are even further behind. In addition, the effects of the pandemic are endangering the progress made by creating additional barriers that affect women. Leaders need to feel empowered to think differently about how to support and promote women so the profession can continue to make strides toward gender equality.
  • Establish accountability. Putting measures in place and holding people accountable to the measures is one way to make sure progress is made.
  • Get staff involved. While it’s the responsibility of top leaders and managers to set the tone and example, all employees must understand the business case for DEI and embrace inclusion in everything they do. Members of your staff who are passionate about diversity and inclusion can also have a powerful impact on their peers.
  • Hire an expert. For larger firms and companies, a diversity, equity, and inclusion advocate in a role similar to the one Cooke plays for the Association can push these issues forward because it’s their job to do it. If you can’t hire an expert, developing a DEI committee is also an effective strategy.
  • Go where the talent is. In recruiting, employers wishing to attract diverse talent to their organizations may need to visit new places. Minority-serving institutions such as historically Black colleges and universities are a great place to find up-and-coming talent.
  • Make DEI training consistent, pervasive, and mandatory. Results will be mediocre if training is done only in February during Black History Month or on an optional basis.
  • Be transparent. Employers must assess themselves and share their DEI metrics. The numbers may not be favorable at first, but the transparency demonstrates the importance of the issue. And it may help diverse job seekers understand that you have opportunities for them.

Progress on DEI metrics may take time, and Ellison-Taylor predicts that even with the increased focus, it will be a couple of years before results are realized. Cooke said employers need to determine the most productive and prominent way to proceed before they can even start their initiatives to ensure longevity in their efforts.

“The majority of people seem to know that a diverse and inclusive workforce is imperative, and people are trying to place greater emphasis and focus on it, but they don’t want efforts to fall short as they have so many times before,” she said. “The people I speak to are being very thoughtful in their approach, trying to get their ducks in a row and trying to figure out how to implement effective initiatives and to roll them out in a way that makes positive change.”

But there is no doubt that there’s a new sense of focus and purpose around DEI that needs to be sustained for lasting change to occur.

“We just cannot lose momentum,” Cooke said. “We need to keep the energy and focus going.”

Ken Tysiac (Kenneth.Tysiac@aicpa-cima.com) is the JofA’s editorial director.

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