Seventy-five years have passed since Mary T. Washington Wylie became the first African-American woman to earn a CPA license, yet African-Americans and other minority groups remain significantly underrepresented in the world of finance and accounting. Measures of diversity and inclusion throughout the profession leave plenty of room for improvement.
According to the most recent data from the AICPA, while the number of overall candidates taking the CPA exam has shot up, African-American candidates represent just 1% of new CPA hires (2017 Trends, http://bit.ly/2WVQTDa). Little wonder, then, that the percentage of African-American CPAs who go on to become partners in professional services firms today is less than 1%.
This needs to change fast. Coinciding with Black History Month, this article lays out the business case for tackling diversity and inclusion (D&I) issues, breaking down why this is such an urgent priority, then turns to four actionable strategies CPA firms can implement to increase diversity today.
The Business Case
D&I is increasingly viewed as an urgent business priority. Celebrating differences in age, ethnicity, gender, physical and mental ability, race, sexual orientation, faith (or lack thereof), or veteran status is a surefire way to expand perspectives and make connections. A growing body of evidence indicates that there is a solid business case for improving D&I in the workplace:
- Companies with diverse leadership teams have reported innovation-based revenue 19 percentage points higher than companies with below-average leadership diversity (https://on.bcg.com/2WYBG4l).
- Ethnically diverse companies are 35% more likely to have financial returns above industry medians (https://mck.co/2WTo4HD).
- Companies with inclusive cultures are eight times more likely to achieve better business outcomes (http://bit.ly/2X7psGK).
These outcomes ought to be relevant to any business, meaning that D&I programs should be a priority.
Actually getting started on these initiatives can be the biggest stumbling block. Strategies to implement include the following:
- Consider non-traditional sourcing. Employers unable to find a diverse candidate pool during the hiring process need to look holistically at their recruiting strategy, and perhaps consider nontraditional sourcing. For example, programs like “returnships,” which help people return to the workforce after time away, can be a great way to secure more diverse hires.
- Introduce training to address unconscious bias. Unconscious biases are learned, deeply ingrained, and universal stereotypes that influence behavior and judgment in ways that individuals are not even consciously aware of. These powerful biases can have a determining influence on hiring outcomes and might be part of the reason an employer struggles to hire diverse talent.
- Rethink interview practices. Interview processes can involve subtleties that inadvertently screen out candidates and stand in the way of greater inclusivity. Structured interviews—that is, asking the same questions of every applicant and ensuring that candidates are evaluated on common criteria—can be a way to counteract that, keeping unconscious biases in check.
- Increase broad-based training opportunities. Providing ongoing training opportunities for team members is a long-term investment with potentially huge payoffs. Such an investment can help position a company as an innovative, forward-thinking leader. Job shadowing, internships, and apprenticeships can also help diversify a business’s long-term talent pipeline.
It has been 75 years since Mary Wylie’s inspiring story first attracted national attention. Sadly, many of the challenges she faced in the profession persist to this day.
Nonetheless, the firm that Wylie launched out of a basement in the South Side of Chicago continues to flourish today. That firm—now known as Washington, Pittman & McKeever LLC—has become one of the largest African American–owned accounting practices in the country. As other CPA firms look to make lasting improvements around D&I, they should do so with this sort of legacy—and longevity—in mind.
Jodi Chavez is the group president at Randstad Professionals, Randstad Life Sciences, and Tatum.