Photo of multi-coloured paper people

The accounting profession is
breaking free from the shackles of stereotypes that have surrounded
it for years, as firms globally strive to diversify their workforce
and create a new, more contemporary image of an accountant. Ana
Gyorkos investigates how diversity has been addressed across the


The days when the first women and
people of varying races and backgrounds entered the profession are
not as distant as one would imagine, with most changes occurring
place in the past two decades.

The profession globally has
acknowledged that staff diversity is essential for future business
success. However, firm leaders tell the International
Accounting Bulletin
there is still a way to go before
diversity will be at a sufficient level and fully reflect the

A survey conducted by this publication
to accompany the report saw 308 accounting firms respond from
around the world. The findings paint an interesting picture as we
see how different continents approach diversity and where their
priorities lay.

In order to better understand how
different regions and countries approach diversity we have
interviewed firms leaders and professional bodies across the world
to cover some of the diversity basics: gender, race, mobility and
educational background.

Charts showing the results of the IAB global diversity survey


Cracking the glass

Globally, there are more women
entering the accounting profession each year and in some firms they
outnumber male colleagues.

However, seeing women take on
leadership positions in the profession is still rare and has been
flagged as one of the important areas needing improvement.

At present, only one of the 10 largest
global accounting networks has a female at the helm – RSM
International’s Jean Stephens.

The Grant Thornton International
Business Report 2011
found women currently hold 20% of senior
management positions globally in privately held business, down from
24% in 2009, and up just 1% from 2004. The mid-tier firm’s research
attributed the decline to difficult economic conditions.

The International Accounting
diversity survey found only a third of firms across
the world have a workforce with fewer than 45% women, with firms
from the Middle East having the lowest proportion of
women. Forty percent of Middle Eastern firms surveyed had
fewer than 10% female staff.

North American and European firms have
the highest proportion of women. In North America, 84% of firms
having at least 45% women, while in Europe it is 72% of firms. In
the Asia-Pacific region, 44% of firms have more than 45% women.

At Singaporean firm Foo Kon Tan Grant
Thornton, 70% of staff are women, which is relatively high in Asia.
HR managwer Dolly Ng Soon Cheng said the female-friendly hiring
policy is due to programmes to encourage women to come back into
profession after a career break.

“As the birth rate is low in
Singapore, to encourage working women to return to the workforce
after giving birth, employers provide paid maternity leave of
between 12 and 16 weeks,” Ng Soon Cheng says.

“Of this, four weeks of salary is
reimbursed by the government.”

BDO Brazil chairman and chief
executive Raul Correa da Silva says his firm has been trying to
keep the gender recruitment ratio for entry level at 50:50, however
at managment level the numbers of females significantly drops.

“In our profession, the number of
women was small 15 years ago, but it has been growing in the past
few years,” Correa da Silva says.

“So, now I would say the percentage of
women in our company – senior level professionals – is of about
20%, but considering the current recruitment processes, it will
start to increase fast.”

Da Silva says when he qualified there
were only a handful of women in the profession; he married Brazil’s
second female auditor.

KPMG UK head of recruitment Iain
McLaughlin says the firm’s gender ratio is at about 50:50 “but
there is considerable variety by grade and function”.

“Of course we would like to see more
women at senior levels,” McLaughlin says.

“There are things that we are doing,
one of them is our Reach programme. This three-month programme
allows women to articulate their career goals, provides inspiration
from various internal and external leaders, feedback on their
leadership style, opportunity to build their networks, sponsorship
and other support.

“We recognise we need to better
representative of females at a senior level.”

PwC US diversity leader Maria Castañón
Moatscould points out that, while her firm may recruit 50% women,
“as women advance in their careers, those numbers change”.

“Perhaps women begin to make choices
around juggling career, family, etc. By the time you get to the
manager level you are not at 50%,” Castañón Moatscould

“So we really invest in supporting
working parents and we have put in place things like Full

“This is [a programme] where we assign
women to a PwC coach – someone they can still have a relationship
with even when they are not with the firm because they are taking
time off.

“It also gives them access to our
firm’s training to keep their skills current.”

As women slowly make their mark, firm
leaders accept there is still a way to go before women well and
truly break the glass ceiling.

Table showing how, in most regions of the world, accountancy firms have between 20% - 50% qualified workforce
Racial diversity is another area that has improved in recent years
for several reasons.

Businesses want to better reflect the
cross-section of people in the societies they operate, while
globalisation and improved mobility of the profession has led to a
rise in secondments.

In some countries, such as South
Africa, racial diversity is an important issue due to relatively
low proportion of black African accountants compared to the
countries demography.

South African Institute of Chartered
Accountants (SAICA) chief operating officer Nazeer Wadee recalls
that, when he qualified in 1998-99, South Africa was moving out of
the racist and suppressive apartheid regime that stifled
opportunities for black accountants.

“For me personally, the difficulty
back then was finding employment,” Wadee says.

“Unless you were white, finding
employment was really difficult, especially at the Big Five.

“What you then struggled with was
getting somebody to believe that somebody who was not white could
do the job. It just meant you probably had to work 40% to 50%
harder than anyone else.”

Racial diversity has changed
significantly in recent years and this is partly due to the Black
Economic Empowerment Act, which imposes a quota of black employees
per company.

So much so, Wadee says, that it has
become difficult to satisfy the demand for qualified black
accountants, particularly female black accountants.

Morison International member
SizweNtsaluba Gobodo is the largest firm outside of the Big

A forerunner firm, SizweNtsaluba was
one of the first ‘black firms’ – a firm largely composed of black
Africans. Chief executive Victor Sekese says when he did his
professional training in the late 1980s and the early 1990s you
could literally count the number of black chartered

“You sort of knew everybody because
there were so few of us,” Sekese points out.

Prior to the merger of SizweNtsaluba
and Gobodo earlier this year, the firms were known as black

“Because of us having a majority of
black staff you might say we are a black firm but that doesn’t mean
we only employ black people,” Sekese says.

“At partner level we have
representatives of the racial group: African black, coloured,
Indians and whites, both male and female.”

Sekese says SizweNtsaluba Gobodo
closely reflects the demographic of the country.

Across the Atlantic, Castañón
Moatscould explains that PwC takes high-performing employees from
minority backgrounds and matches them with an advocate at senior
partner level to encourage them to progress within the firm.

“We have affinity groups – we refer to
them as ‘circles’ – not only for women, but also minorities such as
Asian Americans, African Americans as well as Hispanics,” she

“We also reach out to minority high
school students and parents on navigating the college choice

Despite efforts such as these,
Castawñón Moatscould adds: “My personal feeling is that our
African-American and Latino students are still under-represented in
the accounting programmes nationwide.”


Another way firms are becoming more
diverse is through secondments and other programmes that allow
accountants to work abroad.

International Accounting
research revealed that Latin America employs the
lowest number of people from abroad, with 74% of responding firms
saying they have no expats.

Middle East is the region with the
highest number of expats, with 44% of firms saying they have more
than 40% foreign workforce. More than half of respondents from
North America and Europe also said they have no expats working for
their firm.

In Asia-Pacific. 50% of responding
firms have between a 1% and 40% foreign workforce.

HLB International US member firm
Anchin, Block & Anchin is increasingly recruiting and
sponsoring accountants from the Philippines, South Africa and Asian
countries such as China and Korea.

“We have always been open to hiring
what we think are the best and the brightest,” human resources
director David Finkelstein says.

“At the time when it was hard to get
the quality we wanted from the US workforce, we heard that people
coming over from Philippines, for example, were very talented and
we decided to look at recruiting from overseas.”

Another firm with an internationally
diverse work force of more than 18 nationalities is Foo Kon Tan
Grant Thornton.

“As there is a shortage of local
talent in the industry, foreign talent helps to complement the
workforce,” Ng Soon Cheng says.

“On top of this, the special richness
that foreign talent brings and blends provide us with a different
perspective at work.”

Most foreign employees at the firm are
from other Asian countries as well as the US and UK.

Professional accountancy body CPA
Australia says that, in Australia, accounting is on the
government’s skills shortage list, which provides an easy passage
for migrant accountant workers to enter the country.

“The main countries of origin are
China and India,” CPA Australia executive general manager for
member engagement Jeff Hughes explains.

The UK has always been known for
recruiting from abroad, however, recent government restrictions to
lower immigration levels is likely to stem the flow of migrant
workers entering the country and have an impact upon diversity.

“As a company, we have visa programmes
and we have our allocation on the number of people we can bring in
but there are so many hurdles now,” RSM Tenon HR & recruitment
director Tony White.

“It is very difficult to do that

To get around the restrictions, RSM
Tenon has started to do intercompany transfers within the RSM
International network.

“We have intercompany transfers where
our people will go over to South Africa, America, Australia and
will do anything from three months to two years,” White says.

“Then, on the flip side, we will get
people coming to the UK to do that. So it is almost like a work
exchange programme that is quite sophisticated.”

McLaughlin, from KPMG UK, says the
firm is working with the UK government to better understand the
regulation. As yet, it has not yet affected the firm’s recruitment

Table showing how, in most regions of the world, accoutnancy firms have two thirds of the work force with a university degree

The next

Traditionally, firms have sought
accounting talent from business degree backgrounds but this is not
necessarily the case in every country.

In regions where the talent pool is
small or there is fierce competition from other sectors, firms have
broadened the education criteria of candidates. Larger firms that
provide a myriad of consulting services are also seeking
professionals with backgrounds in IT, climate change, engineering
and other industry sectors.

The most common degree of accounting
recruits, according to International Accounting Bulletin
survey respondents is a business and economics degree. In North
America, 91% of recruits without an accountancy degree have a
business or economics degree.

Some 27% of respondents from Africa
also said they look at social studies degrees, While only 3% of
respondents from North America said they would hire people with
those qualifications.

Most firm leaders explain that, while
there is a growing interest in other educational backgrounds, most
recruitment activity is focused on business graduates.

Finkelstein says, for Anchin, Block
& Anchin, most graduates have a master’s degree and majored in

“The pool is large enough that you
don’t need to go outside accounting,” he says.

Sekese says, in the SizweNtsaluba
Gobodo audit practice, most recruits have an accounting degree due
to the way the profession has been structured historically.

“However, lately we are now employing
non-accounting graduates to work in other divisions that we have,”
he adds.

“For example, the next group of
graduates we have are graduates in the IT space so we have got a
number of people that are qualified from an IT point of view.

“But, to a very large extent, it is
still accounting degrees. We find ourselves with teams of various
skills, legal skills, investigative skills and accounting

“With the new green economy, we are
looking for people who have an understanding of environmental law
and environmental issues.”

UK firms, however, are more open to
people with non-traditional higher education qualifications. White
says academic performance is as important as academic pursuit.

“Our policy would be to take people
from a wide range of courses from politics, history, sociology,
geography, maths, whatever,” White says.

“It doesn’t matter. What matters is
seeing on the graduate assessment days why people want to be an
accountant. What is their hunger, rather than have they have got a
distinction in accountancy at xyz university.”

ICAEW head of member services Sharon
Gunn says the institute is also looking to take in more students
from non-accounting backgrounds.

“That is actually very typical of the
make-up of our profession right now – we don’t just take relevant
accounting graduates, but a really diverse mix,” she explains.

The survey accompanying this report
found the majority of responding firms from around the world had
more than 75% of workforces university educated.

The Middle East has the highest number
of university educated professionals, with more than 84% of
responding firms having more 75% of the workforce with a university
education. In Europe, 40% or responding firms have more then 75%
university educated staff.

Room for

Although firm leaders have seen
enormous changes in diversity there is still a way to go.

KPMG’s McLaughlin says the profession
“probably isn’t quite diverse enough, there probably is a lot of
room for improvement”.

“I think the profession overall, and
frankly the service we provide the clients, would definitely
benefit from increased diversity,” he adds.

“It is an industry challenge we
recognise now. Our peer group recognise that now.”

Sekese says: “I think in five years’
time we’ll see a much improved situation in terms of changing the
demographics of the profession to closely resemble the demographics
of the country. I think there is still commitment and the
commitment is reflected by the financial resources that are put

Firm and professional body heads agree
diversity is an area that needs to be closely monitored and
resources invested in order to improve the demographics of the

Perhaps in certain areas additional
regulation is required to bring along the next level of changes.
For example, mandatory female quotas at management level might
bring the additional push women need to break the glass ceiling in
financial services.

Regardless of regulatory intervention
the profession globally is aware of the importance of diversity;
however there is still a way to go before firms are able to put
this challenge behind them.