insight magazine

Today's CPA | Fall 2016

This is Not 1955

We need to make a case for diversity in the profession.
Todd Shapiro ICPAS President & CEO

In 1955, a young Lester McKeever is graduating from the highly rated University of Illinois with a degree in accounting. The University pushes Arthur Andersen to interview Lester. While the firm is impressed with this potential recruit, they tell him he can’t be hired because he’s African American and therefore won’t be accepted by their clients. Yes, you heard that correctly. Lester became very disheartened but, lucky for the profession, he eventually pursued his dream to be a CPA, and ultimately became the managing partner of Washington, Pittman and McKeever, LLC.

I mention Lester’s story because it came up in a recent visit with the partners of a mid-sized suburban firm. But more on that later.

It’s no secret that the accounting profession is minimally diverse, especially with regards to ethnicity and more specifically African Americans and Hispanics. The numbers speak for themselves. Seventeen percent and 13 percent of Americans are African American and Hispanic, respectively, yet only 1 percent of CPAs are African American and only 3 percent are Hispanic. The question is why? The reality is that there just aren’t enough diverse students pursuing careers in accounting.

We looked at 14 of the largest universities in Illinois and the graduating class of 2014. Among these schools there were just 108 graduates in accounting who were African American and 229 who were Hispanic. Individuals of diverse backgrounds do go to college, with the top two areas of study being teaching and social services. The unfortunate reality is that many in diverse communities aren’t aware of the remarkable opportunities that the accounting profession offers.

Your Illinois CPA Society, led by the Board of Directors, has elevated improving diversity in the profession to a key strategic initiative. We have formed a Diversity Advisory Council, which includes leaders of all backgrounds charged with identifying those opportunities through which the Society can most efficiently impact the pipeline of diverse students entering the profession. We will be identifying specific high schools to work with over the next few years to extoll the benefits of a career as a CPA. The only way to impact the diversity of our profession is to change the pipeline.

Now, back to my initial story and the mid-sized suburban firm I visited. In that meeting, a partner asked what many would say was a politically incorrect question: “Why should I care about diversity in the profession?” I was happy to answer.

First, it’s the right thing to do. Second, a more diverse workforce will bring in more diversity in thinking, which will only benefit the firm. Third, the primary driver of the growing economy is small-business startups—and individuals of diverse backgrounds represent the largest segment creating those new businesses. Finally, even if the firm’s clients are minimally, if at all, diverse, I believe that current and future generations of clients will have respect and admiration for a firm that promotes diversity in its team. Clients expect, respect and, in many cases, reward diversity in the businesses they work with. This isn’t 1955.

Yes, the world has changed, but more change in our profession is needed. Your Society will continue to work with high schools, colleges, firms and companies in developing, identifying and implementing solutions so that, one day, our diverse profession reflects our diverse nation. 

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