Black History Month is a time to learn about and celebrate the achievements of the people and movements that have shaped our country. For businesses, it’s also a unique opportunity to reflect on how to improve diversity and inclusion (D&I) internally as well as in society at large.
In both respects, unfortunately, there remains a lot of room for improvement. The most recent data from AICPA, for example, shows that, even as Blacks/African Americans and Hispanics/Latinos constitute 13.4 percent and 18.1 percent of the U.S. population respectively, only three percent of new hires by CPA firms are Blacks/African Americans, and only 5 percent are Hispanics/Latinos.
Let’s face it, it’s high time for finance and accounting leaders to move the needle on D&I. In honor of Black History Month, let’s reflect on the journeys of three African-American CPAs, and take away some lessons that today’s accounting leaders can adapt to strengthen D&I practices in the workplace.
The nation’s first-ever black CPA was John Cromwell, who received his certification in 1921. Needless to say, his path wasn’t easy. For starters, Cromwell couldn’t sit for the CPA exam in Washington, D.C. — to do so, he would have had to have previous professional experience. Luckily, the same statutes weren’t yet on the books in New Hampshire, so he traveled there to take the exam, and passed. He subsequently went on to dedicate his life to education, teaching high school accounting and empowering students. Eventually, he became the comptroller at one of the oldest historically black colleges, Howard University — an institution that has played an important role in American history generally and the Civil Rights Movement specifically.
Lesson #1: Nurture a More Diverse Talent Pipeline
Cromwell had to challenge the status quo during his time because he didn’t have a network of supportive laws, schools, and businesses in his state that would prepare him to become a successful CPA. Today, fortunately, that’s no longer the case. But accounting leaders need to be more proactive and act as resources for minority students, many of whom continue to face barriers today. Opt to create partnerships with local colleges or associations to provide learning opportunities for students or campus-to-career transition programs that foster experience and soft skills that create ideal candidates for long-term employment. These tactics may not pay off right away, but they are the kind of bigger-picture, systemic approaches needed to enhance D&I in the workplace today.
Bernadine Coles Gines
Bernadine Coles Gines, having been barred from attending the University of Virginia on account of her race, she moved to New York, where she earned an MBA in Finance from New York University. But, she soon found, academic achievements and professional opportunities didn’t necessarily correspond. After two years of searching for work, she went on to become the first female CPA in New York in 1954. Though Gines continued to face barriers due to her race and gender, she ultimately secured stable employment. Indeed, she eventually played a key role during New York City’s fiscal crises of the 1970s, successfully partnering with outside vendors to restructure critical accounting records.
Lesson #2: Tackle unconscious bias head-on to attract diverse talent
As a society, we’ve progressed from those days, obviously, but challenges remain — and few are more pressing than unconscious bias. Unconscious biases are deeply ingrained stereotypes towards certain groups of people that influence individual decision-making but operate at a level outside of conscious thought. For this reason, unconscious bias training is an increasingly standard part of the training curriculum at best-in-class companies today. If your firm doesn’t currently offer unconscious bias training, consider making that an urgent priority.
The National Association of Black Accountants, Inc. (NABA)
By 1969, despite the fact that there were roughly 100,000 CPAs in America, only 136 among them were African Americans. So nine men set out to change that. Their efforts resulted in the founding of the National Association of Black Accountants, Inc. (NABA), with the goal of supporting minorities in the accounting profession.
Lesson #3: Track and Measure the Diversity of Your Team
Just as NABA committed to improving the acute diversity challenges of its time, so must accounting and finance leaders take charge today. Assess what your company’s current diversity and inclusion initiatives are — and try to identify areas you can make improvements and take action. But you’ll need to monitor and track the progress you make in order to evaluate the effectiveness of your efforts going forward. Partnering with HR is a wise first step in order to make D&I a priority for your business.
Learn From the Past and Lead the Future
The journeys of these three trailblazers are inspiring, but they also foreground the need for continued improvements and a renewed commitment to D&I across the board today. A great start is by relishing on these stories that have meaningful lessons to teach and by celebrating differences with respect to age, ethnicity, gender, physical and mental ability, race, sexual orientation, spiritual practice or veteran status in the workplace. If companies are genuinely committed to change, they can move the needle on diversity — and add another chapter to this proud legacy.
Jodi Chavez, Group President of Ranstad Professionals, Ranstad Life Sciences and Tatum, oversees the field organization and provides strategic direction for Randstad Life Sciences, Randstad Professionals and Tatum. With more than 20 years’ experience in the staffing industry, Jodi's entrepreneurial drive and strong business acumen have enabled her to consistently increase revenues, grow profits and deliver ROI. Her breadth of expertise spans team building, strategic planning and execution, M&A, branding, social media and multi-generational leadership.
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