How the path to partner has widened for women, minorities

By Ken Tysiac

Sino Varghese, CPA, had plenty of diverse role models as she sought to become a partner at Moss Adams in a profession that's seeing more women and ethnic minorities promoted to leadership roles.

The partner in charge of Varghese's office in Dallas is a woman. The partner who heads the office's audit department is Latino. In January, Varghese, a woman who was born in India, joined them in the partner ranks.

"If I could be an example for a woman or an Indian or Asian person that is in college right now … I hope I can be an example to say that it is possible," Varghese said.

The possibilities for women and ethnic minorities are confirmed by their growing representation at the partnership levels, demonstrated in the recently released AICPA Trends report. After many years of work by accounting leaders to improve the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the profession, diverse representation at the partner level is growing.

The 2021 Trends report showed that women held 39% of the partnership positions in accounting/finance functions at CPA firms, up from 23% two years earlier. During the same two-year period, the portion of ethnically diverse partners doubled from 9% to 18%, including increases among partners identifying as Asian/Pacific Islander (up from 4% to 10%), Hispanic/Latino (up from 2% to 5%), and Black/African American (up from 1% to 2%).

Leaders of the profession say there is much more work to do as the percentages of partners remain far behind their participation in the U.S. workforce for individuals who are Hispanic/Latino (17% of the workforce) and Black/African American (13% of the workforce). But the doubling of the previous percentages is seen as a step in the right direction.

The Trends report also showed that the portion of new bachelor's and master's of accounting graduates with ethnically diverse backgrounds hired into U.S. CPA firms' accounting/finance functions increased to 35% in 2020, a rise of 5 percentage points over two years earlier.

"We have moved the needle, moved that bar," said Lindsay Stevenson, CPA, CGMA, chair of the AICPA Women's Initiatives Executive Committee (WIEC). "Then the question is, what have we done differently in the past two years that we weren't doing before?"

Stevenson believes the COVID-19 pandemic has led to more opportunities for women in the partnership ranks. She said the pandemic accelerated the acceptance of the idea that CPAs working remotely with flexible hours can be just as effective in leadership roles as their colleagues who spend all day in the office. Stevenson believes leadership opportunities for women have increased as a result.

Meanwhile, ethnic diversity may be increasing as a result of the focus on diversity growing out of nationwide unrest during the summer of 2020. Many firms and businesses doubled down on their efforts to promote and advance DEI in their workforces.

"The renewed focus and energy and awareness of how inclusive a profession we can be has contributed to an increase in numbers," said Kimberly Ellison-Taylor, CPA, CGMA, chair of the AICPA National Commission on Diversity & Inclusion. "It's across the collective efforts of all the stakeholders, and it takes everyone working together to maintain these numbers and to do even more in the future."

Mentorship is a key

Charleston Mitchell, CPA, was at the supervisor level in the tax practice at Carr, Riggs & Ingram in Houston when he had an opportunity along with others at the firm to be paired with a member.

He had one request. He wanted to be paired with a partner.

"I believe I was recognized for that," he said. "I did it because I had a commitment to ensuring that I received the proper coaching, feedback, and development. … I believe that if I'm not growing, it's a direct result of my own inactivity, and I put that on my shoulders. It's totally up to me."

Mitchell, who is African American, developed a deep understanding of the difficulties faced by some of the African American pioneers in the profession when he read A White-Collar Profession: African American Certified Public Accountants Since 1921. The book, written by Theresa Hammond, describes the efforts of the first African American CPAs to overcome the challenges they faced.

Mitchell's experience was different. He was indeed paired with a partner at the firm who provided both encouragement, coaching, and sometimes feedback that Mitchell said was tough to hear but helped him continue with his development.

Other partners at the firm also encouraged him and took pride in his progress. Mitchell had started on this path in grade school, when he was so gifted in math that he thought he might grow up to be a mathematician.

At James Madison High School in Houston, Mitchell enrolled in the only accounting class that was offered as an elective. He excelled in the course, tutored some classmates, and participated in accounting competitions against students from other schools.

On Career Day at his high school, Mitchell also was exposed to the profession when a CPA sole practitioner came to talk with students. He was intrigued as the practitioner, who also is African American, expressed how fulfilling the profession is.

In February, all the early-life focus, the introduction to accounting in high school, and the mentoring by partners paid off when Mitchell was named a partner at Carr, Riggs & Ingram.

"I'm ecstatic and thankful for all the encouragement and support that I received through the years, and I just want to bestow that upon others as I continue to travel through this journey," he said.

Like Mitchell, Varghese took a proactive role in her development. She especially sought opportunities to volunteer and lead in the profession outside the workplace. She started by handing out nametags at the Dallas chapter meetings of the Council of Petroleum Accountants Societies.

She worked her way through the ranks and eventually became president of that chapter and then chaired the North American Petroleum Accounting Conference that was held in Dallas.

"I was given a lot of opportunities, but I also acted on them," she said. "A lot of people get opportunities, but things are not just handed to you. You have to still work really hard at being able to succeed at those things."

A pipeline and a path

The backgrounds of Mitchell and Varghese illustrate many of the strategies that accounting profession leaders are using to develop the pipeline to the CPA and the path to partner.

High school accounting classes, interscholastic accounting competitions, mentorships, career days, and outside leadership opportunities all support inclusivity and talent development in the accounting profession.

Ellison-Taylor said that while the increases should be celebrated, there is much more work to do. She said that women of color are struggling to advance in the profession and that women and ethnic minorities often fail to advance after their second year in CPA firms, as well as after they reach the manager level.

"We are moving in the right direction and definitely must celebrate the great initiatives underway," she said. "However, we can't get comfortable or slow down. Messaging matters, and I want to make sure that I'm not sending the signal that the mission is accomplished."

Stevenson said that as a result of the pandemic and social unrest, she has seen that a number of firm CEOs are having more open conversations with their people about social issues.

She said this has created a sense of belonging and psychological safety that makes women and CPAs with ethnically diverse backgrounds more comfortable at CPA firms. She said this will help the profession attract and retain people.

"It completely changes the dynamics," she said. "It allows people to have deeper conversations about what we are, and aren't, doing and how we could do better. I believe that has had an impact on our progress as a profession."

Meanwhile, the momentum that's being built can increase. Where Varghese once saw two examples of diverse leaders in the Dallas office of Moss Adams, she has become another role model for younger CPAs. Mitchell, who once was inspired by an African American CPA at his high school, now speaks to young people himself.

Last fall he visited an accounting class at his alma mater, the University of Houston, which is taught by one of his mentors, George Gamble, Ph.D. He advised the students to persevere through their studies and focus on their goals.

"If your goal is to become a CPA," he said he told them, "then I'm a living witness that it can be done."

— To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Ken Tysiac at Kenneth.Tysiac@aicpa-cima.com.

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