Occasionally my church encourages a special dress for Sunday worship service. This could be anything from “wear pink for breast cancer awareness” to “Spirit Sunday” where we dress up in our favorite team’s regalia. Well, imagine one’s dismay when she missed the memo and walks in and instantly feels out of place. It’s that feeling of wearing red when everyone else is wearing black; donning jeans when everyone else is in a suit; having curly hair when everyone else’s hair is straight; being a black female when everyone else is a white male. It’s that feeling of being different. Welcome to my world as a professional in public accounting.
Now, don’t get me wrong, being different isn’t always bad. It’s just that, different. When I decided to major in accounting, I must admit I wasn’t really aware of the demographics in the field. Why would I feel the need to research something as trivial as racial and demographic makeup in my chosen profession? It was the early 2000s! I knew my uncle was a CPA, and, well, he looked like me! That’s all that mattered.
I attended an HBCU, so as I matriculated through elementary level accounting courses, I never noticed anything different. The demographic makeup of alumni and recruiting staff from the Big 4 accounting firms who came on campus to recruit was always evenly mixed, so, again, there was no major cause for concern. I chose not to do any public accounting internships during my sophomore and junior years, so I had no exposure to the real world of public accounting. It wasn’t until senior year when my Auditing professor strongly encouraged that we all read A White-Collar Profession: African-American Certified Public Accountants since 1921 that I realized something was different. There were no black people in public accounting.
The book highlights the struggles African-Americans have historically faced in entering the accounting profession. Because of the experience requirement associated with obtaining licensure, many passed the exam, but waited years before actually being licensed because they couldn’t find anyone with whom to do an apprenticeship. Others, discouraged by not even being able to sit for the exam, gave up on the dream altogether. But what was most eye opening was the reason African-Americans didn’t seek out the profession at all. Naturally, we are all inclined to pursue what we have seen successfully done by someone else—in particular, someone who comes from similar circumstances. The neighbor who ran a medical practice for years before retiring, the church member who owns his own business, the relative who became an attorney, even a favorite grade school teacher all shape our perspectives on what we see ourselves being able to do in the future. And unfortunately for African-Americans, there were no such examples of CPAs.
While there has been some increase in African-American CPAs, the numbers are still low. Of the professional staff at firms, only two percent are African-American. The percentage is slightly higher at larger firms, but the numbers are still relatively low. In fact, the number of African-American CPAs has decreased from two percent in 2012, to one percent in 2014, while the number of white CPAs has increased from 86 percent to 88 percent in 2014. Apparently, while the demographics of the country are changing, the ethnic makeup of the profession remains largely unchanged.
So, how does it feel to know that I am in the minority—the extreme minority? Disheartening, yet motivating. Yes, it is disheartening to know that when I walk in a room, it is more likely than not that I will be the only person who looks like me present. And if another minority does happen to be there, in most cases, it will be another female. I attended several conferences in the past year and at each one, no matter the total number of attendees, I could count the number of African-Americans present with minimal effort. At the AICPA Women’s Conference last November, we joked that the male attendees from HORNE were easy to spot because there were so few males in attendance. Well, I’m certain no one had much trouble finding me in the crowd either.
However, despite these low numbers, I am still motivated. My uncle wanted all of his children to become accountants. He saw the benefits and possibilities of the profession and wanted each of his children to see them as well. I, too, champion the potential and benefits. Accounting offers many different potential career tracks both within public and private accounting. While African-Americans often choose to major in accounting and aspire to one day work in public accounting and become CPAs, many get turned off to the profession along the way. The lack of work-life balance and diversity is unappealing. Oftentimes, there is no motivation for taking and passing the exam because the benefits of doing so seem underwhelming in comparison to the work required. The perception of the profession as a whole is a major deterrent to many people entering public accounting and until we are able to exhibit a culture the opposite of these beliefs, until we make the decision to acknowledge our faults and decide to be different, not only will minority candidates choose to steer away but individuals desiring a diverse mindset will as well.
Well, HORNE is working to change these perceptions—to be decidedly different. Because the culture of public accounting is one that traditionally lacks in diversity in all areas, HORNE is working to create a culture where everyone can feel a sense of belonging, where everyone can feel they have a place in an industry where the “fit” may not be readily apparent, and sometimes absent altogether. Have we figured it all out? Absolutely not. Will everyone feel that they belong? No, but the key is to create an environment where everyone is able to determine what belonging really means to them, where everyone is able to see their full potential and see how they can contribute to and advance within the firm. Are there still days where I walk into the office and feel different? All the time. But because I can see the culture change taking place, I am confident that one day that will fade into oblivion. I will, as my church says every Sunday morning, “be at home.”
About the Author:
Lori Liddell, CPA/ABV, CFE, is a fraud, forensic and litigation services manager who performs business valuation and litigation support, including general business valuation and company financial analysis. She is committed to being an advocate for diversity and inclusion within the firm and the accounting profession as a whole.
 2015 Trends in the Supply of Accounting Graduates and the Demand for Public Accounting Recruits.