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 |
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
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
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.