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April 30, 2008

Racial hurdles persist in American accounting firms

By Nicholas Moody

Women of colour face significant obstacles working within US accounting firms, according to new Big Four-backed research. The study, Women of Colour in Accounting, found that African-American, Latino and Asian women have a vastly different experience in professional services firms from white women, white men and men of colour.

The report said firms were characterised by a client-service focus and firmly entrenched “old boys” networks where staff of colour felt less included than white employees.

Lead author of the study, Katherine Giscombe, also warned that diversity programmes at US accounting firms ran the risk of being characterised by good intentions, imperfect execution and less than successful results.

kThe report found that women of colour experienced barriers to a greater extent than white women or men of colour. Many of these barriers related to difficulties in feeling comfortable in a client-based environment, and included a lack of similar role models, stereotyping, a greater level of exclusion from networks, and problems accessing client-based assignments and business development opportunities. “The one thing I do notice as I go to partner meetings is when you look at the number of partners and you look at the percentage of non-Caucasian, it is way too low,” a Latino respondent noted.

The statistics are significant since the accounting industry faces increasing staff recruitment and retention demands. Employment of accountants and auditors is also expected to grow faster than the average for all occupations through to 2014, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

More than half the graduates completing accounting degrees are women, and women of colour are a critical part of the talent pool for accounting firms, the study noted. According to the US National Center for Education Statistics, in the 2005-2006 school year, people of colour earned 26.2 percent of all accounting bachelor’s degrees, 19 percent of all accounting master’s degrees and 19 percent of all accounting PhDs.

Despite the importance of engaging women in minority groups the research found perceived barriers for women of colour include race-based disadvantages, double standards and a lack of access to high-visibility engagements. These barriers resulted in women of colour having low satisfaction in their careers, which was a significant reason for them choosing to leave firms. It warned that to stay competitive, accounting firms need to create more inclusive workplaces.

The report was conducted by Catalyst, a global non-profit corporate organisation that works to expand opportunities for women and business, and sponsored by the Big Four. It involved six interviews with senior leaders, nine focus groups and a web survey of 1,424 respondents from a sample of employees at large US firms.

Catalyst president Ilene Lang said the accounting industry had made great strides toward building a more diverse and inclusive workplace, but added: “Working to further change the white, male, up-and-out culture to one that is more inclusive to women and people of colour will not only expand opportunities for women of colour in the accounting industry but also allow firms to attract and retain the best and brightest in the field.”

The report recommended firms aggressively open up client meetings and high-visibility opportunities to women of colour and facilitate interaction among women of colour and others in the workforce. Nicholas Moody

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