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Firm diversity: CPAs try to balance the books

By ,
Ralph Thomas, CEO
and executive director,
New Jersey Society of CPAs.
Ralph Thomas, CEO and executive director, New Jersey Society of CPAs. - ()

CPA firms are interested in maintaining a diverse group of employees, as it makes good business sense for any business to do so, but recruiting has been slow.

Employment of accountants and auditors is projected to grow 10 percent from 2016 to 2026, faster than the average for all occupations, according to U.S. Department of Labor figures. But most of the hiring is limited to non-minority individuals, according to a recent report from the American Institute of CPAs. 

Just 3 percent of all professional staff at CPA firms in the U.S. are African-American and 5 percent are Latino, the report found. Only 23 percent of the firms have women with the rank of partner, and less than 1 percent have African-American staffers occupying such positions.

Overall, the hiring of minorities, including Asians and Pacific Islanders, is on the increase, yet they make up less than 5 percent of the partners at CPA firms.

“A few years ago, I was on the inaugural National Commission on Diversity and Inclusion that was established by the AICPA,” said Ralph Thomas, CEO and executive director of the New Jersey Society of CPAs. “We found that the needle had not moved since 1968.”

Systemic discrimination in the past is part of the reason for the disparity, according to Cynthia Lubin, a solo CPA in Roselle and president of the National Association of Black Accountants’ North Jersey chapter.

“For a long time, minorities were not able to get into the accounting profession,” Lubin said. “We have since made strides, but we got into the field late, and people who were already in the profession developed relationships that made it easier for others to enter.”

NABA is trying to help students and professionals “to engage with people in the CPA firms and private industry for mentoring, internships and other opportunities,” she noted.

It’s all about exposure and making contacts, Lubin said, as “opportunities often happen when you’ve met the right people.”

Cynthia Lubin, president, National Association of Black Accountants, Northern New Jersey Chapter.
Cynthia Lubin, president, National Association of Black Accountants, Northern New Jersey Chapter.

She added: “We live in a diverse world, so companies can more effectively address the needs of their clients if their employees come from different backgrounds. It gives an accounting or other firm the ability to understand a wider range of client perspectives, and wants and needs.”

Meantime, even when CPA firms try to reach out to minorities, their efforts may sputter over time.

“A lot of times, companies will set up a program to attract and retain diverse accountants, but once they perceive that the objectives have been accomplished, the program fades away and a few years later they’re back where they began,” Thomas said. “You need a strategic plan that addresses retention and advancement. It’s got to have commitment from the top, and it’s got to be sustainable.”

Part of the problem, he added, is that the accounting profession tends to “fly under the radar” of many people.

“Growing up, many minority children don’t see too many CPAs,” he said. “On TV shows they see lawyers, police, teachers, doctors and others, but not too many accountants. I grew up in Washington, D.C., and didn’t know anything about a CPA until I went to college and took an accounting course.”

NJCPA and AICPA work with CPA firms and other organizations to try to increase the profession’s visibility by visiting urban high schools and working with firms to establish mentorships and scholarships.

“But we’ve got some competition,” Thomas said with a chuckle. “The STEM initiative [aimed at getting women and others into science, technology, engineering and mathematics] is getting a lot of support from the government, so we’re sort of on our own.”

One solution, though it takes time, involves working from within.

“As you get more females and other people from underrepresented groups moving up the ladder, it may increase opportunities for minorities,” Thomas said. “Also, as more minorities go into business for themselves, firms will likely see they need to present a diversified team to handle the growing base of new clients.”

Thomas said the NJCPA is also working with advocacy organizations like [the Association of Latino Professionals for America] and Ascend, a Pan-Asian organization for business professionals.

Another partner is Evelyn McDowell, a Rider University accounting professor and former president of the diversity section of the American Accounting Association, an academic organization. About seven years ago, McDowell launched an effort at Rider to create a community of aspiring minority accounting professionals.

“We’re focusing on male and female black/African-Americans, Hispanic Americans and Native Americans,” she said.

McDowell said her efforts attracted a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. She’s also partnering with CPA firms for mentoring opportunities.

African-Americans and other minorities “have a low level of representation in accounting because they faced long periods of historical discrimination,” she said.

Even when they get into a firm there may be obstacles to advancement, she added.

“Especially in auditing, the client assignments you get can help your chances at promotion,” McDowell said. “Anecdotally, I’ve heard that some people just don’t get these plum assignments. After awhile you don’t get promoted, so you read the writing on the wall and you leave.”

She’s optimistic about opening the profession up to a diverse group of individuals, but acknowledges it may take some time. “When it doesn’t matter where you’re born, or what your color is, then we’ll know we’ve succeeded,” McDowell said.

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