Opportunity to increase accountant diversity post-pandemic

Team of individuals
By Marquece Cunningham | 03/03/2022 | 5 min read

The strength and beauty in CPA diversity

During this post-pandemic recovery, we often hear about the 'new normal.' But what does the new normal look like for accountants? We are already beginning to see heightened part-time working, increasing hybrid work policies, and continued multi-generational recruitment. There is another area to consider - a more diverse workforce. The percentage of black accountants has not changed in decades, remaining at merely 1%. While the accounting profession has shown a strong heightened commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), it can still do more.

Among the evolution of our working habits, now is the time for accounting firms to embrace a more diverse workforce. The pandemic changed the way firms work by empowering them to harness technology, adopt work-from-home policies and change their demographics. As a result, the way CPA firms’ offices look and how coworkers interact and collaborate has forever changed. As these shifts occur, it is also the perfect opportunity for CPA firms to adopt new policies and foster positive cultural changes, including harnessing the strength of diversity.

Historical trends leave you at a disadvantage    

CPA firms lacking diversity are at a significant disadvantage compared to their counterparts. When everyone at a firm looks and thinks alike, ideas can run stale and creative ideas are not incentivized. This can cause a firm to be stuck in a loop, functioning on historical ideologies that are no longer relevant and unable to connect with the world today. New client relationships can also be affected. When prospective clients meet you, whether it be in your office or via a Zoom meeting, they may not feel comfortable if they look around and see nobody who resembles themselves - and ultimately seek out a firm they find more relatable.

Lack of diversity amongst the leadership at a firm may also affect its ability to recruit diverse young talent. In the United States, 39% of employees report they would leave their current organization for one that was more inclusive, and nearly one-third of millennials report already leaving an organization for a more inclusive one. Fostering a culture of diversity starts from the top down and lack of diversity amongst leadership can affect the perceived diversity of the full organization. Nobody wants to feel like an outsider or 'token' in the workplace. Even if a firm has a diverse talent pool of junior employees, lack of diversity at senior and leadership roles may create a mindset that job or career progression is not possible, affecting employee retention.

The time is now

We are currently at a crossroads of change as the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the way employees in every profession interact in the workplace. The attitude of 'we are all in this together' has been extended beyond fighting the virus and moved into the world of work. The new technology tools used to keep firms connected throughout the pandemic can also be harnessed to attract new, highly capable talent as the profession moves increasingly towards a virtual environment and becomes less dependent on physical location.

One major change from the pandemic was decreasing emphasis on external factors as CPA's were evaluated solely on their quality of work. Previously, the traditional 9-5 workday may have turned demographics such as moms away from the profession due to its lack of flexibility. With cloud-hosted accounting software, firms are relying less on legacy systems and paper records that require each employee to be physically in the office. Encouraging flexible working hours also allows employees to attend to their daily needs, such as dropping off and picking up children from school without compromising deadlines or quality of work. Although flexible work hours are not new to the profession, often those who took flexible work hours felt like they were looked down upon by leadership. Creating a workplace that encourages flexible work hours and values quality of work over simply hours at a desk is one of the many ways a CPA firm can set itself apart in the industry.

The evidence of a lack of diversity in the industry is clear. Despite a 49% female population of students enrolling in accounting bachelors programs, only 23% of partners are female. Further, 10% of students who enroll in accounting bachelors' programs are black/African American, but the same demographic makes up only 1% of partners. Overwhelmingly, partners at CPA firms are white males. Lack of diversity at the partner level has resulted in a lack of diverse role models for young employees starting their careers. Highlighting the voices and experiences of diverse accounting professionals on a firm and industry-wide basis is a first step in the right direction. We are starting to see this through an increasing amount of thought leadership from diverse CPAs. 

The next steps

What steps should your CPA firm take now to increase diversity, both in the firm and across the industry? To begin:

  • Support diverse voices both within your firm and across the industry and listen as people share their stories and experiences as minorities in the profession.
  • Build mentor programs for like-minded people to learn and grow.
  • Prioritize skill and willingness to learn above other external factors throughout the recruitment process.

Embracing the strength of diversity will allow your firm to better assist clients and meet their needs. As humans, we inherently find value in working with those who share our experiences and interests and appreciate that we each experience life in different ways and offer varying levels of subject matter knowledge and expertise that drive passion and relatability. As the profession continues to change as we emerge from the pandemic, now is a perfect time to create a culture of diversity that will not only impact the firm but can also diversify your client base and lead to additional growth and profitability.