Women of color in accounting feel lack of connection

Women of color in accounting, including African-American, Asian and Latina women, feel less included in the work environment than whites, are less likely than whites to perceive accountability in their firms' diversity practices, and believe that work-life practices at their firms lack racial sensitivity, a study sponsored by Catalyst has found. The study, Women of Color in Accounting, written by Katherine Giscombe is based on interviews with 1,424 respondents from the top 20 revenue-generating firms and is the second in Catalyst's Women of Color in Professional Services Series. The first report in Catalyst's series of reports on women of color in professional services firms, Retaining People of Color: What Accounting Firms Need to Know, examined retention of women of color in accounting firms.

Women of Color in Accounting examines the context for women of color by comparing their experiences with white women, white men, and men of color. The comparisons allow researchers to better understand the intersectionality that women of color experience; how a person's different attributes and characteristics -- color and gender, for example -- interact and inform professional experience and expectations. While the focus of the report is on women of color, and many of the conclusions also apply to men of color in accounting, the research yields interesting data about the overall satisfaction of white women with their careers and the strong commitment of white women to their firms.

The context of the work experience for women of color in accounting firms is critical, as the current shortage of accountants is expected to continue in the coming years. With the percentage of persons of color who are recipients of accounting degrees holding steady or increasing slightly according to the American Association of Certified Public Accountants, the talent pool will increasingly be made up of persons of color.

Quotes from respondents are interspersed throughout the report and provide individual insights that illuminate the data analysis.

Examining general characteristics of the work environment, the study found that people of color were more likely than their white counterparts to believe that they must make adjustments to fit in -- 54.9 percent of women of color and 54.2 percent of men of color vs. 8.8 percent of white men and 26.6 percent of white women. White women, more than other groups, responded that they believe that "other employees make an effort to adapt to member of my group."

Career satisfaction remained the most significant predictor of intent to leave among all groups including women of color. The second most significant predictor for women of color was the scope of their network -- defined by the study as the frequency one speaks with a range of others in the organization. In general, the more frequent the interaction, the lower the intent to leave.

Women of color scored the lowest on their "scope of network," based on questions that asked how often they spoke with a range of different groups. Women of color were least likely to speak frequently with a range of people across the organization.

Women of color expressed the highest intent to leave of the four groups. White women were found to be the most committed to their organizations of any of the four groups and expressed the lowest intent to leave. Men of color expressed strong commitment to their firms and were more likely to remain with their firms than either white men or women of color. The data on the intent of white men to leave may reflect both flexibility and a greater willingness to change organizations in order to advance their careers among white men.

In general, women of color cited lack of similar roles models as a barrier to advancement as well as the lack of high-visibility assignments and lack of professional development activities.

Women of color said that they believed that their opportunities to advance to senior leadership had increased over the last five years, but they were more likely than men of color to say that they believed they cannot compete successfully to advance in the organization.

Barriers that women of color face reflect a lack of connection with others. Among the barriers were the lack of an influential mentor or sponsor and a lack of access to networks of influential others. The research found that both men of color and white women perceived these barriers to similar degrees, and that women of color and men of color were similar in citing lack of understanding of organizational politics as a barrier.

Both women of color and men of color believe that diversity and inclusion practices suffer from a lack of commitment and accountability. Women of color were more likely than both men of color and white women to say that diversity practices were "ineffective in promoting a truly inclusive workplace, demonstrating that many practices may not address the combined effects of race/ethnicity and gender that women of color experience," the Catalyst report says.

One-half of the participants were satisfied with their firms' efforts to support work-life quality. This was equally true for all groups. Women of color were found more likely to use extended family for child care than white women, who tended to use outside help from babysitters and childcare.

All respondents except white men found that the pursuit of education was another factor that made work-life balance difficult to achieve, the report says.

The dissatisfaction with their careers expressed by women of color can be tied to the isolation women of color feel in the workplace, the study concludes. When asked about their participation in informal networks and social activities at work, and the extent to which they had access to those who can help with job issues and politically navigating the work environment, women of color reported that they had less access.

To put in place best practices to promote an inclusive environment, firms must recognize the intersectionality of the work experience for women of color, the Catalyst study says. Firms need to establish a strategic framework like Ernst & Young's Gender Equity Strategy. Members of E&Y's Offices for Flexibility and Gender Equity Strategy help identify development and change-management initiatives, advise senior leadership on strategies related to gender, and facilitate knowledge-sharing across Ernst & Young’s business units, according to the E&Y Web site.

Firms should also build strong accountability systems, the Catalyst report suggests. Organizations need to periodically assess the effectiveness of their diversity programs, possibly by analyzing the promotion and retention rates of subgroups. Organizations should institute some kind of scorecard system for the entire firm with goals that are based on the results of human resources and employee survey data. One program that monitors client assignments is Ernst & Young's CareerWatch, an example of a program that helps to build participation by diverse groups.

The lead sponsor of Catalyst's study of Women of Color in Accounting was Ernst & Young. Contributing Sponsors were Deloitte & Touche, KPMG, and PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP.

Founded in 1962, Catalyst is the leading nonprofit corporate membership research and advisory organization working globally with businesses and the professions to build inclusive environments and expand opportunities for women and business.

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