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Profession still has strides to make when it comes to inclusion of black accountants

Written on May 1, 2020
By Jessica Salerno, OSCPA senior content manager

While celebrating and honoring Black History Month, one diversity and inclusion expert reflects on the strides the profession still has to make when it comes to the low number of African Americans in accounting.

“This is a time to celebrate the accomplishments of our ancestors,” said Margaret Finley, diversity and inclusion strategist and consultant at OSCPA. “I think of my ancestors and how they paved the way for me to be who I wanted to become. I am who I am today because of the sacrifices my family members who were slaves made.”

Although the profession has evolved since 1921, when John Cromwell Jr. became the first African American to earn his CPA, the profession is still overwhelmingly white.

Roughly 9% of all 1.9 million accountants and auditors in the U.S. are black, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And while the number of Hispanic and Asian accountants and auditors has continued to rise over the past decade, the number of black people in the profession has remained relatively stagnant.

The stats don’t inspire more hope when looking at career progression, according to a 2017 AICPA demographic trends report:

  • 9% of students enrolling into accounting bachelor’s programs,
  • 4% of new hires by firms, and
  • 1% of firm-employed CPAs.

Companies wondering what they can do to change this need to start asking themselves uncomfortable questions to understand why their staff isn’t more diverse, Finley said. They might not like what they find, but it’s valuable to recognize where the issues are to solve them.

Finley said part of the problem is the lack of effort to include diverse professionals past the hiring stage, and in the past has coached individuals who told her they did not feel a sense of belonging in their corporate organization, which subsequently resulted in them leaving.

“As human beings, we like a sense of familiarity, right?” she said. “Things that we are familiar with and makes us feel comfortable, and it takes effort to step outside of that. So, what companies can really do is have an intentional focus on making people feel welcome and encourage a sense of belonging.”

Efforts to reach out to underrepresented populations in accounting are also vital, such as those from The Ohio CPA Foundation. Accounting Careers Leadership Academy and the Accounting Careers Awareness Program work to expose students to the profession beyond the stereotypes they might have heard.

“It's about education and exposure at a young age of the variety of careers you can take in accounting,” Finley said. “In every business, you need an accounting arm. There is so much diversity and opportunity in where you can go with an accounting degree and certainly a CPA.”

Finley acknowledges these efforts are not easy, and said it goes beyond shrugging your shoulders and making excuses for why your company isn’t more diverse. But having candid, open, conversations and creating strategic plans to implement D+I will mean the profession will look more like the diverse communities it serves.

“It's just about having a conversation,” she said. “And quite frankly, when you do that, you may find that that you have more in common than you don't. It’s not just about skin and race but also diversity of thought. And that comes with really being open to have a conversation and understanding someone who appears different than yourself.”

"For strategies on enhancing diversity and inclusion in your organization, register for our upcoming webinar, A Culture of Inclusion: Promoting Workplace Diversity and Belonging."