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June 14, 2008

Study finds race barriers within US firms

By Nicholas Moody

Women of colour face significant obstacles working within US accounting firms, according to new Big Four-backed research.

The study Women of Colour in Accounting found that African-American, Latino and Asian women have a vastly different experience in professional services firms from white women, white men and men of colour.

The report said these firms were characterised by a client-service focus and firmly entrenched ‘old boys’ networks where staff of colour felt less included than white employees. Many of these barriers related to difficulty in feeling comfortable in a client-based environment and included a lack of similar role models, stereotyping, a greater level of exclusion from networks, and problems accessing client-based assignments and business development opportunities.

Despite the findings, US accounting firms can be positive places for women of colour to work, according to one female African-American accountant.

Kenyan-born Millicent Onyango said her experience has been good despite being the only person of colour at her 110-person firm. Onyango has been a senior tax associate for the past three years at Anders Minkler & Diehl (AMD), an 11-partner firm based in St Louis, Missouri, which is part of the Leading Edge Alliance.

“I have never experienced anything, everyone has treated me with respect [and] they appreciate what I do. They know I am a hard worker, they give me credit for that and I got promoted for that,” she told The Accountant.

Onyango said not having role models of the same race was not an issue for her and she is also well involved in client contact.

“At our company we have great women who have been in the company for 30 years and I look up to them. For me it does not matter that they are black or white, to me they are just women and I can look up to them,” she said.

A spokesperson from the National Association of Black Accountants briefly noted that women of colour were often afraid to speak out in accounting firms.

New figures released by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants last month covering the most recent trends in the demand for public accounting recruits showed that the largest firms remained the most racially diverse.

Minorities account for 11 percent of current CPA firm professionals in the US, with Asians at 6 percent, Hispanic/Latinos at 3 percent and Black/African-Americans at 2 percent.

The Women of Colour in Accounting report was conducted by Catalyst, a global non-profit organisation that works to expand opportunities for women in business, and sponsored by the Big Four. It involved six interviews with senior leaders, nine focus groups and a web survey of 1,424 respondents from a sample of employees at some of the 20 largest revenue earning accounting firms in the US.

The lead author of the study, Katherine Giscombe, also warned that diversity programmes at US accounting firms ran the risk of being characterised by good intentions, imperfect execution and less than successful results.

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