insight magazine

Standing With Asian Americans in Accounting

As the Asian American community experiences increasing violence, now is the time to offer understanding and support to the largest ethnic minority population in the accounting and finance profession. By Carolyn Tang Kmet | Summer 2021

2020 was a year of palpable angst here in the United States. A pandemic unprecedented in our lifetimes ran riot, and underneath the drumbeat of COVID-19 deaths and economic impacts we could hear the constant hum of racial tension. And while the ongoing protests over the deaths of Black Americans in police custody hit a fever pitch after the killing of George Floyd, communities already struggling with job losses and the deaths of loved ones found a scapegoat in Asian Americans.

According to analysis of police data compiled by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, anti-Asian hate crime increased by 146 percent across 26 of America’s largest jurisdictions in 2020. This increase in anti- Asian sentiment correlated with the rise of COVID-19, often called by such stigmatizing terms as “Kung Flu,” “China Virus,” or “Wuhan Flu.” This trend in anti-Asian violence sustained through the first quarter of 2021, where police data from the 16 most populous cities in the country showed a 164 percent increase in anti-Asian attacks. In the first 89 days of this year, there were at least 95 incidents of reported anti-Asian hate crimes.

While this should concern all Americans, it hits especially hard in the finance and accounting profession. According to Data USA—a visualization engine developed by Deloitte and based on U.S. Census data—as of 2019, Asians make up 12.2 percent of accountants and auditors in the United States. This makes them the largest ethnic minority in the profession—and it makes the challenge to support our Asian American colleagues and fight the trend of anti-Asian sentiment all the more pressing.

Creating a Sense of Belonging

For Asian Americans in the accounting industry, struggling with stereotypes and different expectations is part of the job. “We can’t change perceptions, but we can disprove them,” says Anna Gomez, CPA, a first-generation Filipina and Illinois CPA Society member.

Gomez holds a degree in economics from one of the top universities in Asia, and before coming to the United States in the early 1990s, she owned and operated two restaurants. But once she arrived in the States, it was a struggle to break into the professional workforce. She took the first job she was offered as a “copy girl” for a law firm in Chicago, churning out copies eight hours a day.

“I found out pretty quickly that no one wanted to hire someone without a U.S. education or U.S. experience. It was a tough realization for me, a 24-year-old mother who thought she had everything figured out,” Gomez recollects.

The solution came from an unlikely source: A group of people on her daily train commute from Indiana to Chicago advised her to sit for the CPA exam. She didn’t pass on her first try. Or her second try. “But I kept on and I’m glad I did. The CPA certification made me a credible candidate for all my future jobs,” Gomez says.

Today, Gomez is the global chief accounting officer and international chief financial officer for IRI Worldwide and a published author of multicultural women’s literature. Throughout her career, she has championed diversity and inclusion and battled ageism, believing that the ideas, innovation, and progress that make businesses successful are the combined effort of diverse minds. She cautions against equating diversity with inclusion, noting that retaining and promoting diverse employees to leadership positions remains a challenge in many organizations.

“Diverse employees often don’t feel like they belong, or that they have the ability to progress in an organization that has no diverse role models at the top,” Gomez observes. “Inclusion means advocating for diverse talent in ways that will allow them to stay, grow, and succeed—and that means celebrating every single life story.”

Offering Tangible Support

Illinois CPA Society member Roxanne Chow, CPA, a second-generation Chinese American and senior manager in EY’s financial accounting advisory services practice, was shaken by the recent increase in attacks against the Asian community.

“What impacted me most was seeing the videos of Asian elders being punched or slashed. It felt like I was seeing my grandma, my cousin, my aunts or uncles being attacked,” Chow recalls. “Even though I felt personally safe in the very diverse, liberal bubble of Chicago, I was still terrified for my family.”

As a child, Chow remembers being embarrassed by her parents’ Chinese accent. She recalls wanting so badly to fit in, which to her meant being white. This feeling of being an outsider and struggling to fit in is an experience shared by many second-generation immigrants. But as an adult, she is proud and deeply grateful that her parents immigrated to the United States.

“They were incredibly courageous and brave to come to the United States and to communicate and interact in a language that was not their mother tongue,” Chow says.

Chow counts herself lucky that EY walks the talk when it comes to diversity and inclusion, treating them as business imperatives. Following the recent rash of race-motivated attacks, Chow was able to draw strength and support from her coworkers, noting that she was only able to have these very open conversations with her team members because organizational leadership had been very vocal in their support of the fight for equality and justice.

“Be visible and lead by example,” Chow says. “I always go back to, ‘What are the things I can change? What are the things that I can do personally?’”

Chow suggests donating time and money to organizations that fight back against hate crimes, as well as voting at the local, state, and national level. Chow herself volunteers for Ladder Up, a non-profit organization that provides free financial consulting to the underserved, helping with taxes, college financial aid, and financial literacy. “Donating money is important, but sometimes donating your time is much more powerful,” she says. “Become an advocate for rejecting aggression and hate and building awareness. Talk to anyone who will listen and share your perspective.”

Navigating Tensions With Empathy

Stella Marie Santos, CPA, a first-generation Filipina, has accounting in her blood: Her father was an accountant with the Philippine Commission on Audit and both of her sisters are CPAs. In 2011, Santos founded Adelfia LLC in Chicago with her sisters, and she currently sits on the Illinois CPA Society Board of Directors.

“We named the firm not after our own names as is typical of CPA firms, but with a name that every employee can take ownership and have pride in,” Santos explains. “Adelfia means brotherhood, sisterhood. We want Adelfia’s success to belong to the entire team. This foundational principle drives a feeling of equality among our team members.”

Santos’ warmth and smile are contagious, but sometimes those aren’t the first qualities people notice: Santos has been in situations where people make assumptions about her technical knowledge or ability because of her accent. “On multiple occasions, I felt some irritation from the person I was talking to because of my diction, and have sometimes felt dismissed,” Santos relates.

Santos suspects that today’s racial tension is partially a result of lagging economic conditions. “Many Caucasian Americans have been displaced in their work, and I think sometimes they think their jobs and opportunities were taken from them by a minority. I think that idea was encouraged by the previous presidential administration, and society has become really divided,” Santos says.

Of course, not all tension is born of anger—some arises from a simple lack of cultural understanding. During a regional audit, a client mentioned their surprise at Adelfia’s diverse team’s command of English. “We explained to them that in the Philippines, from elementary school until college, our medium of instruction is English,” Santos laughs.

Santos’ approach in fraught situations is to recognize that it is common for people to have a reaction to someone different from themselves. “When you feel as though your skills or abilities are being underestimated because of your heritage, try not to let those reactions make you feel like less of a person. Prove them wrong by communicating what you know and getting the job done. The quality of your work will speak for itself,” Santos advises.

More importantly, Santos advises approaching these situations openly and with empathy. “Sometimes their reactions or comments are due to a lack of awareness. Let them know how they made you feel, but in an empathetic tone. Share with them stories of where you came from, how you were educated, and the experience you have gained. When you share your story, your human spirit comes out,” Santos says.

Santos is conscious that sometimes she also makes assumptions about others, relating an instance where she approached a client because she felt their tone was undermining her work. “She assured me that’s not at all how she meant it. That moment opened my mind, because I realized I was reading too much into what she had said,” Santos shares.

During that discussion, both the client and Santos realized how much their preconceptions of each other impacted their communication. Today, they are very good friends.

“The lesson I learned is that we have to understand each other. I think the reason we’re having these problems is because one side or the other tends to be closed-minded. When there is closed-mindedness, how can we have reconciliation?” Santos says.

Understanding Your Worth

Faye Zhang, CPA, is an audit manager at Crowe LLP and an Illinois CPA Society member and while accounting came naturally to her, math did not. “Because I’m Chinese American, people assume I’m good at math. In group projects in college, they would try to hand me the math-heavy portion of the work, and I’m like, ‘I don’t know how to do this,’ Zhang laughs.

She advises her fellow minority accountants to own their abilities and to be proud of them. In too many cases, she says, younger interns and new hires are hesitant to share their accomplishments.

“I do a lot of interviews for my firm. Some people come in with this really amazing resume and when I ask them questions about it, they’re super shy about the work they did. You have to bring it out of them, and prompt them with, ‘Oh, what did you do there?’” Zhang says.

She encourages her fellow young minorities to understand their worth and be more assertive. “Don’t sell yourself short. Go fight for the same opportunities—you’re worth it,” she says.

As Asian Americans in accounting and finance take steps to own their worth and push forward, the rest of us must also step up and do our parts to make the profession more welcoming by embracing the unique stories and perspectives within our organizations, putting aside preconceptions, and pushing back against hateful attitudes and actions within society as a whole.

“I do think this country is great. I do think there are so many amazing people out there. If we can all do our part, even if it’s a just a little one, we can make this world a better place,” Chow says.

Carolyn Tang Kmet, MBA is a senior lecturer at the Quinlan School of Business at Loyola University Chicago and the director of affiliate marketing for Groupon.

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