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