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How New Accounting Grads Can Tune Up Their Diversity BS Detectors

How can CPA firms be so white and male when they’re so dedicated to diversity?

Look at any firm’s career site and you’ll see a carefully written commitment to diversity. Read enough of them and you’ll soon realize that diversity statements all sound the same. The profession can’t even come up with diverse ways to talk about the diversity it doesn’t have.

Therein lies the problem: Everybody uses the same (safe) language because most firms are describing the same types of programs that, hello, aren’t really solving the problem.

Here are three ways new accounting graduates can figure out what’s really going on at a firm, the better to see if its values are in line with yours:

1. Count names and/or faces

Get your fingers out and start counting the actual number of women and minorities on the firm’s management committee and, if they show photos at their website, among its partners and principals.

What you’re looking for is an accounting firm that at least meets, and hopefully beats, the overall averages for women and minorities in top spots. After all, if the programs and culture the firm describes on its career page actually work, they’ll have results, right? At the very least, the firm should report steady improvement, right?

Not usually. Precious few firms actually show their work, explaining what their diversity goals are and if they’re achieving them. So you get to count noses. Don’t worry, you won’t run out of fingers.

Most “best places to work” lists won’t help because most of them just blather on about workplace benefits and amenities, not programs that actually hold leaders accountable for retaining and advancing diverse staff.

I’d know: I run the “Best CPA Firms for Women” list, sponsored by the Accounting & Financial Women’s Alliance (AFWA). It is based on the Accounting MOVE Project, an annual benchmarking report that shows firms how they are doing in terms of advancing women and diverse staff, and how they can do better. (Full disclosure: The project is supported by founding sponsor Moss Adams and national sponsor CohnReznick.)

Our goal is to be unironic, which is basically an endless battle, given that many of the winners for local and national “best places” lists also are in the news for festering pay gaps and chronic discrimination complaints.

It doesn’t help that there’s plenty of inequity to analyze.

The harsh reality is that women comprise 51% of CPA firm employees but only 26% of partners and principals. That’s according to the soon-to-be-released 2019 Accounting MOVE Project report (check out the 2018 report and archives for the inequity backstory).

If women are scarce in leadership, minorities are practically absent. White people hold 94% of partner and principal positions at firms. All minorities, together, share the remaining 6%. (That’s according to the 2018 Diversity & Inclusion Report for CPA and Advisory Firms, and here’s more full disclosure: The sponsor is Grant Thornton.)

2. Look at a firm’s leadership pipeline

Now you’ve got your benchmarks and you can see how the firm under consideration compares.

But what about the pipeline, you say? Isn’t it just a matter of time before women and minorities automatically move up, as baby boomers (finally) wither and scroll off?

Don’t confuse succession planning with conveyer belts. Only 52% of firms have formal succession planning. Without a plan, chances are slim that women and minorities will wait around for opportunities that haven’t materialized for others. Therein lies the retention problem.

Here’s how to glimpse a firm’s pipeline. Go to the news section of its site and look at the makeup of the last few “partner classes.” A firm with a real succession plan will have a healthy—even an increasing—proportion of women and minorities. If the firm is just promoting more of the same, its leadership will continue to be more of the same. You will have to piece together the pipeline. Very few firms hold themselves accountable and disclose their diversity process in a clear, consistent way. One that does is Moss Adams, through its annual diversity report.

3. See if women are heading up new practices

Here’s the last strategy for cutting through the haze of happy talk: Look at who is opening new markets and leading new practices.

Some firms, like Novogradac, Rehmann, Plante Moran, and MCM, open new offices with women in charge, elevate women to practice leadership, or both. Why does that matter? Because running an office or a practice is a microcosm of running a whole firm. That’s how partners qualify, eventually, to be the top dog.

The accounting profession won’t have more women and minorities running firms if women and minorities don’t get a chance to show they can make money on a smaller scale.

There you go, BS detector tuned up and ready for job-hunting season. Have fun!

[Ed. note: The 2019 Accounting MOVE Project report (along with the Best CPA Firms for Women and Best CPA Firms for Leadership Equity lists) will be released in early June by the AFWA.]

About the author:

Joanne Cleaver is a communications consultant and author who works with associations on projects that measure and support the advancement of diverse talent.