Challenges continue for African-American accountants: Survey shows mixed results despite a big effort to increase opportunities.

Author:Dey, Mithu

During the past decade, the accounting profession has made a significant effort to increase opportunities for minority employees, but more progress needs to be made.

To explore how African-American accountants view their treatment in the work environment, and how to improve it, the Center for Accounting Education (CAE) at Howard University surveyed African-Americans in the accounting profession in 2017 and compared results with findings from a similar survey in 2006. Broadly speaking, we observe improvements, but the need for significant advancements remains.

The survey showed that mentoring relationships have benefited the careers of more African-American accountants, with 67% saying in 2017 that mentoring has helped them, compared with 52% in 2006. However, while formal mentoring and networking programs have expanded opportunities (see the chart "Formal Mentoring on the Rise"), African-Americans are still not welcomed to informal networks where opportunities arise for members. Specifically, we note a decrease in success in establishing strong social networks in the workplace to 54% (2017) from 63% (2006). A contributing factor to the eroding success of establishing strong social networks is that access to these networks in the workplace is also deteriorating, as 53% reported access in 2017 compared with 63% in 2006. Meanwhile, more than six in 10 respondents in 2017 (64%) and 2006 (68%) said they had challenges navigating corporate politics. Thus, while we observe the positive impacts from formal mentoring relationships, we find that limited access to informal networks hinders the ability to navigate corporate politics, which limits or slows career advancement.

The continued struggles of African-American accountants in these areas--even after leaders of the profession have made substantial efforts to improve diversity and inclusion in the profession --may be evidence that additional factors need to be considered. While our survey does not address unconscious biases, it is an explanation that is being offered in the profession. Unconscious biases are judgments that people hold outside their awareness that can affect how they treat others in the workplace and elsewhere. Recognizing and overcoming these biases may be a key to making further progress toward diversity and inclusion in the profession and helping African-American accountants establish strong social networks and navigate corporate politics.

In the survey, the CAE received 420 usable responses from 2017 and 427 from 2006. Of the 420 participants, 263 work in public accounting, 101 in corporate, and 56 in government/not-for-profit. The responses represent workers from a cross-section of the major segments of the accounting labor market: 221 staff, 132 managers, 52 in senior management, and 15 in other roles.

After analyzing the survey responses, CAE and the authors conducted three focus groups consisting of a total of 10 participants. The focus groups were partitioned by senior management in public accounting, managers in public accounting, and staff in both public and corporate accounting.


Overall participation of African-Americans in the accounting profession continues to be low. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), African-Americans represent 12.1% of the employed workforce but only 8.2% of the accountant and auditor workforce. The coming years are an especially opportune time to improve representation because accounting jobs are expected to expand, amplifying the potential impacts of diversity initiatives. The BLS forecasts that over the 2016-2026 period, the number of accountant and auditor jobs will grow by 10%, a rate faster than overall employment.

Yet the pipeline figures do not point to a forthcoming improvement. The AICPA's 2017 Trends report provides data on the supply of and demand for African-American accountants. The most recent data show that representation is not uniformly distributed across segments of the profession, with under-representation worse at higher career levels. For instance, at U.S. CPA firms, only 3% of professional staff are African-American and a paltry 0.3% are partners. Those results are not likely to improve...

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