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April 30, 2008

Black CPA’s experience contradicts race research

By Nicholas Moody

US accounting firms can be positive places for women of colour to work, according to a female African American accountant. This experience contrasts the findings of new Big Four-backed research, which noted significant barriers.

The report, Women of Colour in Accounting found that African-American, Latino and Asian women have a vastly different experience in professional services firms from white employees and men of colour.

It said these firms were characterised by a client-service focus and firmly entrenched ‘old boys’ networks where staff of colour felt less included than white employees.

But Kenyan-born Millicent Onyango said her experience has been good despite being the only person of colour at her 110 person firm. Onyango has been a senior tax associate for the past three years at Anders, Minkler & Diehl (AMD), an 11 partner firm based in St Louis, Missouri, that is part of the Leading Edge Alliance.

“I have never experienced anything, everyone has treated me with respect [and] they appreciate what I do. They know I am a hard worker, they give me credit for that and I got promoted for that,” she said.

Growing up in Kenya and coming to the US as an immigrant has given Onyango a different perspective from African Americans who have been raised in the US, she said. “You talk to [African American] people who are born in America and they tell you their experience. Sometimes they feel that because they are of colour, they haven’t gotten the opportunities that they would have gotten if they were white. That’s their experience, but I haven’t had that experience,” Onyango explained.

Barriers highlighted in the report relate to difficulties in feeling comfortable in a client-based environment, a lack of similar role models, stereotyping, a greater level of exclusion from networks, and problems accessing client-based assignments and business development opportunities.

However, Onyango said not having role models of the same race was not an issue for her and she is also well involved in client contact.

“At our company we have great women who have been in the company for 30 years and I look up to them. For me it doesn’t matter that they are black or white, to me they are just women and I can look up to them,” she said.

In explaining the relatively small representation of non-white employees at AMD, marketing director Donna Erbs said it was difficult to find women of colour in the profession.

A spokesperson from the National Association of Black Accountants said that women of colour were afraid to speak out in accounting firms.

The study was compiled from six interviews with senior leaders, nine focus groups and a web survey of 1,424 respondents from a sample of employees at some of the 20 highest revenue earning US firms.

New figures released by the AICPA this month covering the latest trends in the demand for public accounting recruits showed that the largest firms remained the most racially diverse. Minorities account for 11 percent of current CPA firm professionals in the US with Asians at 6 percent, Hispanic/Latinos at 3 percent and African-Americans at 2 percent.

Nicholas Moody

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