Implicit bias, defined as “attitudes or stereotypes that affect understanding, actions, or decisions in an unconscious manner,” is a pervasive social phenomenon [Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity (Ohio State University), “Understanding Implicit Bias,” https://bit.ly/31XVkAM]. It is relevant in accounting education because of accounting’s stewardship role. According to FASB’s Conceptual Framework, a primary function of financial accounting is to help external stakeholders determine “how efficiently and effectively the entity’s management and governing board have discharged their responsibilities to use the entities resources” (“FASB Concepts Statement No. 8, Conceptual Framework for Financial Reporting–Chapter 1, The Objective of General Purpose Financial Reporting,” 2010, https://bit.ly/347J1EN). The danger is that unconscious bias could result in nonwhite or female leaders being evaluated differently than their white male counterparts, even when the underlying financial performance is the same.
In the context of the evaluation of CEO performance, the “halo bias” is particularly salient. Specifically, it is the tendency to allow the assessment of one specific trait possessed by an individual to be influenced by that individual’s other traits. One body of research suggests that gender plays a role in how CEOs are assessed. For example, a recent study found that female CEOs face more threats from activist investors than male CEOs [Vishal K. Gupta, Seonghee Han, Sandra C. Mortal, Sabatino (Dino) Silveri, and Daniel B. Turban, “Do Women CEOs Face Greater Threat of Shareholder Activism Compared to Male CEOs? A Role Congruity Perspective,” Journal of Applied Psychology, vol. 103, no. 2, pp. 228–36, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0000269]. We can infer that implicit bias also comes into play when nonwhite CEOs are assessed, even if the smaller sample size of Black CEOs provides a smaller set of empirical evidence.
Implicit Bias May Affect the Understanding of Accounting Information
The naïve view of financial reporting regards accounting as objective, hard data with little room for subjectivity. But savvy financial statement users know that considerable judgment is required to interpret accounting information meaningfully. In a recently published case study that forms part of the orientation for incoming MBA students at the City University of New York’s Baruch College, students assume the role of external stakeholders evaluating the tenure of McDonald’s first Black CEO; the case study is based on financial data as well as other information from the public record (Lee B. Boyar and Paquita Davis-Friday, “Assessing a Golden Opportunity: CEO Performance at McDonald’s,” The CASE Journal, vol. 15, no. 5, pp. 397–415, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1108/TCJ-12-2017-0118). Students debate whether aspects of the firm’s financial performance, reflected in net income, are attributable to the CEO’s efforts or outside his control.
A profession concerned with stewardship has a responsibility to combat racial and gender stereotypes.
Reducing the Impact of Implicit Bias in the Interpretation of Financial Information
Accounting professionals are typically subject matter experts new to addressing gender and racial biases. Additionally, accounting syllabuses are crammed to overflowing with technical information. Bearing in mind these constraints, the authors put forward two proposals to reduce the impact of implicit bias in the interpretation of financial information.
First, care should be taken to avoid selecting course and training materials that inadvertently perpetuate harmful societal biases. The economics profession has found itself under scrutiny for, among other things, providing too few examples of female leaders in economic textbooks (Betsey Stevenson and Hanna Zlotnik, “Representations of Men and Women in Introductory Economics Textbooks,” AEA Papers and Proceedings, vol. 108, pp. 180–185, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1257/pandp.20181102). The accounting profession should examine this as well. The McDonald’s case study referenced above was published in an issue of the CASE Journal that sought to redress an imbalance where “less than 1 percent, or about 70, of Harvard’s 10,000 published teaching cases feature Black business leaders” (Mary Kuchta Foster and Pamela Queen, “Letter from the Editor,” The CASE Journal, vol. 15, no. 5, pp. 357–361, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1108/TCJ-09-2019-127k, citing Brett Milano, “Black Leadership, Front and Center,” Harvard Gazette (blog), May 12, 2017, https://bit.ly/3g8Ichh). Business educators have a responsibility to present diverse examples.
Second, students and practitioners should be made aware of the potential for implicit bias. As stated in a useful, publicly available training session on the topic: “External research shows that awareness of unconscious bias can lead to reversals in biased outcomes” (Google Re:Work, “Raise Awareness about Unconscious Bias,” https://bit.ly/321ys3n). Even a brief mention of the possibility of unconscious bias in an accounting course might be effective in prompting students to reflect on the possibility that they harbor biases. Incidents of implicit bias occur in contexts to which students can relate. For example, an empirical study found that female lecturers received lower ratings from business students than their male counterparts (Friederike Mengel, Jan Sauermann, and Ulf Zölitz, “Gender Bias in Teaching Evaluations,” Journal of the European Economic Association, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1093/jeea/jvx057). Students can be asked to consider if it is likely that, after graduation, the same biases will remain in play when evaluating female managers. A very readable discussion of the study appeared in the Economist (“Research Suggests Students Are Biased against Female Lecturers,” September 21, 2017, https://econ.st/3ayqmDh).
A profession concerned with stewardship has a responsibility to combat racial and gender stereotypes. Such a proposal is not revolutionary—rather, it is a natural extension of the work the profession has traditionally done to address heuristic biases. Done skillfully, it will build critical thinking abilities that enhance accounting knowledge and improve its application.