In this article I have the pleasure of interviewing Jina Etienne, (CPA, CGMA, CDE) about the troubling rollback of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) underway in many areas of U.S. business across multiple states. At a time when few senior Black women CPAs existed, Jina has consistently been an innovator in the space of inclusion and belonging. As principal consultant at Etienne Consultants working within the accounting space, she currently helps clients recognize their DEI potential, utilizing her experience at former roles including director of diversity & inclusion at Grant Thornton and past President of the National Association of Black Accountants, Inc (NABA). Her work is prescient at this moment, as nowhere is immune from this diversity pushback, as PwC, a champion of DEI efforts in the past, presently feels the chilly wind of the DEI Winter, as mentioned in previous articles in this column. Due to a challenging legal environment, it has begun to amend wording in its DEI pledges to be less race specific, in effect watering down the intentionality of its DEI initiatives. It is against this backdrop that I specifically ask for her opinion on the current assault against Black women professionals. In the interview I pose the simple question ‘what can be done in our field of accounting about all of this?’

The Backlash to DEI

Anton Lewis: Thank you very much for agreeing to this interview. To start, what are your thoughts about the rollback of DEI we are experiencing at this moment?

Jina Etienne: You know, my husband brings this up often. He’s concerned considering the line of work that I’m in. I tell him that DEI isn’t going anywhere and that this work has been around for decades, we just keep calling it different things. And part of the reason we call it different things is because we have to call it a name that people can accept. The inability to tolerate the phrase “diversity and inclusion” is showing us that it is time to come up with yet another term for this work. What is different is this toxicity around the language of seeing, valuing, and understanding diversity. The United States identity is the so-called melting pot. Politically there’s been backlash to the social wave that washed around the globe around DEI after George Floyd, and a rise of racial consciousness that followed.

I believe that is what is driving the backlash because so much of D&I work feels like it is rooted in race. The increase in awareness of Black Lives Matter was quickly followed by blue lives matter and white lives matter and identity politics and the nonsense that has evolved from that. Political rhetoric has become more and more toxic. It’s becoming more and more entrenched. First it was federal, then state and local, now it’s colleges and universities. So much of corporate America is driven by workplace politics, and workplace culture often mirrors social culture. Noise attracts noise. But what’s happening behind the curtain? In corporate America people are still knocking on my door and asking me for help, which means people are still interested in doing the work. There’s complexity to all of this and there are a lot of other things that are behind that. You know, we’ve had those conversations about this myth of a post-racial society. We believe that women now have equal opportunities. We talk about people with disabilities or different abilities in a way that suggests that accommodations are more supportive. We want to make everyone comfortable, but too much of what lies beneath all of this is the need to feel better about ourselves.

Then there is the Cancel Culture mindset that influences the way we are willing to show up at work. It changes the dynamic of what we talk about and it’s impacting corporate America. I do think particularly in CPA firms that partners know they’re 95% white we have a largely white male, probably cis gender leadership in our profession. And likely Republican. I’m not saying that to disparage the Republican party. I think the two-party system has its flaws, but it’s served us okay, right? This is more about the water our leaders in this industry are swimming in. Conservative waters. From discussions I have with leaders across the profession, they likely hold “traditional values” and share similar perspectives, underlying beliefs, traditions, and experiences. This matters because there is an utter lack of diversity of what we call lived experience that informs, prioritizes, and supports the D&I efforts that they are trying to find solutions for.

Then there is the complexity of an industry rooted in a form of invisibility. When auditors do a great job, nobody knows we were there. The waters we swim in as an industry like to be quiet. But I believe that the rollback is because the discussions since the murder of George Floyd have been largely rooted in race. The result of those racial discussions led to a backlash that is changing the narrative in the United States about Black history. For me, Black history is being rewritten in this country and when we push back, we are accused of being divisive and this gives credence to this idea that D&I is somehow reverse racism against white people. As an industry rooted in invisibility, independence, and conservatism, we let them have their little fights out there. We don’t talk about those things at work. As Black people, we have worked hard to assimilate into this industry. So, it has traditionally been a safe place to be in. But we can no longer wait, sit tight, and be quiet. Because guess what? The workplace, the humans in this country, are becoming more diverse, and so somehow accounting firms are going to either be more diverse or they’re going to be mostly white and really small. For us to make progress, we need to be seen as who we are and how we are.

The Authentic Invisible Accountant

Lewis: You said an interesting thing there, that auditors like to be invisible, and I thought, why? Is this part of being an authentic accountant?

Etienne: Two things there, authenticity and being an auditor. When we are on site at a client and when we show up to do the work, we mirror the culture, the mindset, and the behaviors of the client. If I’m at a very conservative client, I don’t walk in wearing a pink polka dot suit. But if I’m at a tech firm and I see people that are dressing in ways that are non-gender conforming I can show up in a pink polka dot suit, nobody’s going to care. So, we have to be careful when we talk about authenticity and showing up as an auditor. As an industry, we collectively show up in those ways that mirror our clients, that’s the nature of the work. Authenticity is a risky word that we throw around too easily. I often want to roll my eyes because who is the arbiter of authenticity? You can’t prescribe it to somebody. You must actually be very careful defining what authenticity is “supposed” to be. That means being authentic as a Black woman in an accounting firm means showing up in a way that a white male leader believes is authentic. So, the ruse of authenticity is just a different form of pressure for me to change and adapt and behave differently so that I can be accepted by you as my “authentic” Black female self.

Jina Etienne

There’s another part of your question I wanted to answer around accounting wanting to be invisible and fade into the background where DEI is concerned. For me this brings to mind the CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion project. CEOs have asked people to sign a statement of commitment to DEI, facilitate difficult conversations, and share ideas about what we’re doing. But if you start browsing their website to see what ideas they’re sharing, it’s all the same stuff and kind of blends into the background becoming non-visible. The project was well intended (I suppose you could say that about most DEI efforts), but perhaps it is just another way to say, hey, we’re doing things. At this point, it feels more performative to me than anything else. After George Floyd, there was a flurry of signatories. Even small firms signed on and added statements on their websites proclaiming that they’ve signed the CEO Action as if it’s a badge to demonstrate their commitment.

This ties into what I was talking about earlier when I said that, you know, our partners are predominantly male and white and conservative. Because that informs the lived experience that is part of the discussion. It also informs perceptions of how we should show up authentically, and what it looks like to mirror our clients? It informs which actions are taken and how those actions are perceived. Signing the CEO Action is considered a “safe” thing. And when you have that perspective, there’s going to be this heightened sensitivity and reactivity. So, when there’s the slightest hint, or I’m worried that there might be a hint of trouble when we behave differently, in a DEI sense, then in terms of the client, and their impression of the firm, our partners are highly sensitive and will pull back from DEI. This means redirecting behaviors, efforts, and activities within our CPA firms in an attempt to become “safe” where contentious DEI is concerned. You can publicly champion something but pull it back internally. But if you want to be a respected leader, what you say publicly and what you say privately, you know, they must sync up. Otherwise, the real message is clear, we have to do this because this is what the clients expect of us.

Persecution

Lewis: What does this mean for Black women accounting professionals in the U.S. right now in terms of the rollback of DEI?

Etienne. In my opinion, Black women are taking back their culture unapologetically. For example, natural hair, which I’m doing by the way. It’s typical of my own journey where I have seen other respected Black women doing something, which gets me thinking well maybe I should do it. But then worrying will I be accepted when I do it? It took me a year to be comfortable having my own hair natural. Imagine that, struggling to get comfortable with my own hair! I’m loving that we are starting to see Black women dress differently, owning their traditions and cultures, if you will. For those who don’t know, Black culture is very diverse. Having said that though, we’re not stupid. Black women are very much aware that we don’t want to be seen as that angry Black woman because that is very much a real, entrenched stereotype. But it is not something you can talk about. It’s that whole conversation about our so-called post-racial society. If society is post-racial, we have a fully integrated diverse society and profession. But the reality is that our racial and gendered systems still need to be dismantled and addressed and until that truly changes, I just have to go along to get along.

Another challenge for Black women is the intersection of being Black and being a woman. Those two are often acknowledged separately. I think about Black history month where I get acknowledged for my Blackness. Then Women’s History Month, that acknowledges the challenges I face as a woman. But where do I get acknowledged for the challenges I face as a Black woman? And I think that intersectionality, the multi-faceted representation of Black women’s identity is missing in the conversation. That lack of the representation, that’s what persists, because when you don’t have Black women speaking to our experiences, then those experiences don’t inform solutions. Those experiences aren’t acknowledged as unique barriers that Black women are facing that need to be addressed. As a result, there’s this idea that when we create policies to address challenges for women, we don’t think about how it might affect women of color differently. But never forget in this country, malignant stereotypes absolutely persist for Black women and we have to be vigilant and mindful of those stereotypes. I think those are the challenges we face. I feel like I’ve touched on a bunch of different things but have not necessarily answered your question specifically. It’s such an expansive question.

Staying Healthy

Lewis: In the face of all this stereotyped pressure, both gendered and racialized, Black women professionals face daily battle fatigue. What, in the face of this, should Black women do to protect themselves?

Etienne: So, I thought of three things. Self-care, support networks, amplification. Because at the end of the day, I can’t change anything around me that’s happening by myself. I can only educate myself on why it might be happening, the history of it, the motivations of others. I can educate myself on how this happens by looking at the policies and the structures. It’s exhausting and sometimes overwhelming. So, it is important for us to pay attention to the care that I need so that I can stay centered and grounded. So that I stay psychologically and emotionally safe and balanced. Some of that will be the traditional types of self-care that you hear people talking about, like exercise, eating well, and getting sleep. But also, it’s constantly reconnecting to your internal purpose, grounding your identity, and your culture. But sometimes you need help. Sometimes you need to be able to sit with others who know what it feels like to be that “authentic Black woman” through the lens of a predominantly white profession. Where you don’t have to explain or rationalize. Other Black professional women they’re like, yeah, I know that feeling all too well. I believe it’s vitally important to find support networks and safe spaces where we can share struggle and somebody can say, well, here’s something that I tried and maybe it’ll work for you.

I want to speak to amplifying our voices, but it can be complicated to do because of all kinds of political roadblocks and cultural sensitivities. You know, all the reasons why we don’t have open and honest dialogue in corporate America! What amplifying voices means is if I see another Black woman saying something or doing something, I can repeat it with acknowledgment for her. Recognize it was her idea. In this way I can help everyone see she was the one who said it. No, she did it. Or I like how she did it. Without amplification the triumphs of many Black professional women can be missed, overlooked, or dismissed. Others including Black women on their own might not have the confidence to say or do anything to champion themselves. But when I, another Black woman professional can reinforce it, giving her the credit, it creates awareness and celebrates her accomplishment. Making sure everybody in the workplace is looking and noticing great work, because all too often this does not happen and Black women’s success goes unacknowledged, meaning we remain professionally invisible.

But it’s not the only thing that can be done, we can also think about advocacy. Through support networks we can drive change. Some people want to be an advocate, some people want to be an activist, and some people don’t, and that’s OK. But if one of the things you want to do is to help drive change, you can put together a plan for that. It’s a matter of finding stakeholders, champions, and supporters. You need to understand the environment and the ecosystem that you’re in because that’s the culture of the firm or the organization where you work, and you need to build people into a coalition because you need to have multiple voices in the room to be truly heard and usher in change. Change the waters we swim in.

Unfortunately, Black people can’t make these changes without the help of white people. This isn’t some radical idea. Those without power cannot drive change without the help of those in power. Women can’t drive change without the help of men. The LGBTQ+ community needs support from cisgender people. People with disabilities need able-bodied champions. Those who are in positions of power have to be part of a solution. And so, for Black women if you want to be an advocate, if you want to be an activist, finding strategies to get that support is essential. The challenge with that, though, is it gets me right back to the whole self-care thing. One of the hard parts about DEI work is that you’re constantly having to explain to somebody with privilege and blind spots about the experiences of minorities, and why they should be paying attention to and supporting people like me. It’s exhausting.

Help

Lewis: I want to know how the accounting industry can support Black women professionals. Specifically, what should the AICPA, NASBA, and the Big Four be doing to help?

Etienne: Basically, as a Black woman accounting professional, I alone cannot change the water I’m swimming in. But the AICPA, NASBA and the Big Four can. How? Champion systemic change, acknowledge the disparities and do something about it. Engage in data transparency. Collect the data. Part of the reason we don’t have the data currently is because no one wants to share it. But our industry is really good at compliance. So, ask firms to collect the data and report the data. Shockingly, when we create requirements for firms to do things, things get done!

Another issue is the disparity of funding for certain accounting programs. For example, Historically Black Colleges and Universities get less funding versus predominantly white institutions who get more. Our industry can lobby for better funding instead of saying wow, it’s unfortunate that they don’t have the same amount of funding. They can also give them more money. There is a lot of philanthropy in this industry. So, it’s not like we don’t have the resources. It just isn’t a priority. We give enough to say we are giving something, but not enough to make a difference on a large scale. There are disparities in access to CPA exam materials. For some people, CPA exam fees aren’t reimbursable, so they must pay for them out of their pocket. Some people don’t even get time off to sit for the CPA exam. This affects Black and Brown and poor whites greatly. There are different needs for how to study for the CPA exam. You know, I have ADHD, I tell you I cannot learn from reading. So, if you put me in a situation where I have to read in order to sit for an exam, I’m not likely to be successful. Let’s explore different learning tools, resources, and pathways to the CPA exam. Of course that’s just assuming you got past the hour’s requirements, the experience requirements, the fact that you basically have to get a baby master’s degree in order to sit for the CPA exam, which in and of itself is a barrier to entry, which shockingly also tracks along racial differences.

Address these barriers honestly, as opposed to saying, no, we understand that there’s a disproportionate impact, and you know we’re working on diversity. That means examining the experience of white employees and the experiences of employees of color. If you start to look deeply and thoughtfully at the disparity of those experiences, now we can have a conversation about the impact of those differences. Because if we never look holistically at the experiences of our white employees, experiences of minorities are seen as outliers and we don’t have an equitable benchmark to work against.

DEI is about mindset shift, it’s about strategies, it’s about operations, it’s about collaboration. It’s about skills and competencies that you need to navigate the world that have nothing to do with debits and credits. We must “normalize discomfort.” It isn’t good enough to have good intentions. We need to be intentional and accountable.

Lewis: What do you mean by this?

Etienne: Auditors want to be invisible. I get that, but you cannot allow that to persist in the workplace. When we walk into the door at our firms literally or virtually, we have to be OK talking about uncomfortable things. And I don’t mean uncomfortable things because something went wrong in the engagement, I mean uncomfortable things because somebody just said something offensive. Something racist. Something sexist. Something dismissive. Those microaggressions are real, and they disproportionately affect people of color.

As we finish up, I would say it’s really about inclusivity and belongingness as an outcome. I can’t make you feel included with a snap of my fingers. But by understanding your experience and creating an environment that values them, doesn’t ask you to hide them, and where you can simple “be,” that is the work. We must recognize that. Then we have to work on it.

Investing in the Future

My brief conversation with Jina Etienne explored a myriad of problems arrayed against DEI, its role in accounting, and the pernicious effect that attacks against Black women in business are having. Yet this is not new. We continue to see the effects in the recent resignation of Harvard president Claudine Gay in the wake of plagiarism allegations, or previous attacks on the integrity of Pulitzer-winning author Hannah Nicole Jones of the 1619 Project as her tenure bid stalled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. There are a myriad of other examples. While Etienne advocates for safe spaces and individual techniques to mitigate harm against oneself, the real solution is to engage once again with DEI, in a format which is acceptable to all, so we can positively invest in the future of all professionals in our industry.

Anton Lewis, PhD, is an associate accounting professor in the college of business at Governors State University, University Park, Ill.