Driving DEI at CPA Firms: Why Diversity Mattersby
While companies across industries have begun to prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), diversity in accounting remains an issue. In this article, Nikki Watson, senior manager of national sales at Becker Professional Education, discusses the barriers that underrepresented groups face in the workforce and why CPA firms must take steps to attract and retain diverse talent.
The increasing awareness of social justice issues over the past 18 months has triggered the need for organizations to have serious discussions about their internal culture and demographics. Terms like anti-racist, bias, micro-aggressions and allyship have become more widely used among HR and senior leadership teams. Companies across every industry pledged renewed commitments to social justice and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). However, simply stating a commitment to DEI is not enough. Diversity isn’t a spectator sport. Organizations must actively demonstrate that it’s a strategic priority, a business strategy that requires consistency, transparency and accountability.
According to AICPA’s 2019 Trends report, 91 percent of partners at CPA firms in the U.S. and 84 percent of all CPAs in the U.S. are white among a national population that is only 60 percent white. The lack of diversity within the accounting profession may not be indicative of active, conscious bias against diverse, underrepresented communities (Black, Indigenous and People of Color or “BIPOC” and LGBTQ+), but it does reflect how societal inequities can become professional barriers.
First, obtaining the CPA designation requires an additional investment in education, time and money. It takes 350-400 hours to adequately prepare to pass the CPA Exam, in addition to the 150-hour educational requirement to obtain the license. Underrepresented students often have difficulty paying for their undergraduate degree, so the cost of an additional year of education or obtaining a master’s degree can be discouraging. For people from underrepresented groups, the perceived value of becoming a CPA may not be worth the obstacles along the way.
The second barrier underrepresented communities face is career progression, beginning with the hiring process. When a firm’s hiring, branding, messaging and career development strategies are not designed to support underrepresented talent, it reinforces the homogeneous work environment often associated with the profession. Firms that lack diversity often communicate a culture that does not exude inclusion, belonging or representation. Culture is driven by and reflective of senior leadership, and the organization’s hiring policies, education, training and other resources must reflect the firm’s commitment to DEI. Good intentions without policy and accountability won’t yield sustainable results. Firms must view an investment in diverse talent as a financial imperative, incorporating DEI into their overall business strategy so it becomes part of their DNA.
So why does DEI matter, and what can organizations do about it? Let’s start with the why. The McKinsey & Company 2020 Report “Diversity Wins: How Inclusion Matters” says, “the most diverse companies are now more likely than ever to outperform less diverse peers on profitability.” Diversity in the workforce can lead to a more robust exchange of ideas that enhance decision making and creative problem solving. When people can be their authentic selves (feeling that they belong) and are appreciated for who they are and what they bring to an organization (feeling included) it increases engagement. Increased engagement leads to improved retention.
So, what can organizations do about it? They can start with increased accountability and tracking the right metrics. Transparency is key. What is the data telling you about your organization? Are you tracking employees’ career journeys and gaining an understanding of when you’re losing diverse talent? Are you training recruiters on unconscious bias? Are you training managers and supervisors on mindful communication and conducting performance reviews and giving constructive feedback that nurtures career advancement of diverse talent? Does senior leadership sponsor and mentor diverse talent to enhance representation at all levels? Additional steps firms should consider include:
- Starting with education: Creating an inclusive work environment in which all employees can thrive doesn’t happen by accident. It requires a shared commitment within the organization to equip staff with a better understanding of DEI and why it impacts them and the bottom line. Training is essential in changing perceptions of the inequities within the accounting profession and society. Programs like Becker’s newly launched DEBI certificate introduces the benefits of bringing true diversity and equity into the workspace, discusses common barriers to success and provides practical steps for creating a culture of inclusivity.
- Investing in progress: We know firms that invest in DEI increase their operational and financial performance. To do so, leadership must identify gaps and blind spots and prioritize a cultural shift within their organization. They must commit to challenging the status quo, devoting resources to reimagined training and teaching new skills to diverse talent to support advancement and career longevity.
Today’s workforce is more diverse than ever, but the accounting profession is woefully behind. Leadership has a responsibility to advocate for change. Senior leaders must assess how well they have created diverse teams, inclusive environments and equal opportunity for career growth. If firms implement DEI as a proactive strategy along with metrics for progress and recurring training, organizations can sustain behaviors that lead to transformative change.