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DEI in the CPA Profession—Past, Present and Future

Rumbi Bwerinofa-Petrozzello
Published Date:
Dec 23, 2021

Bwerinofa-Petrozzello, Rumbi larger

On Oct. 27, I gave a speech for the Accountants Club of America titled, “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the CPA Profession—Past, Present and Future.” What follows is an excerpt from that speech. 

The CPA profession is 125 years old this year, and in January 2022, the NYSSCPA will be 125. The profession began in New York, and the NYSSCPA is the oldest state society in the country. 

The Accountants Club of American (ACA) incorporated in 1927. Elijah Watt Sells—who was a partner with Charles Waldo Haskins, the Society’s first president, in a predecessor firm to Deloitte—wanted a place for social and nonprofessional meetings. He came up with the idea that eventually led to the formation of the ACA. He believed that if CPAs built personal relationships, it would result in the advancement of professional ideals. He wanted a space where CPAs could open up and be themselves. The thing that I really love is that one of the unwritten rules of the ACA was that one of the governors was always on duty to welcome newcomers and help them feel comfortable—and especially, to greet nonresident members. 

As a person who is committed to inclusion, that appealed to me. I see that a lot of members truly value camaraderie and friendships. As someone who has advanced to a leadership position at the State Society, what has made me so active and involved is the people I have met and come to know.  

I will now share some history of the CPA profession. As the first woman of color to be president of the Society, I understand the value of firsts. When I think about this, I think of those who came before me, and I am always grateful for the many mentors, allies and sponsors who were, and continue to be, instrumental in my journey . 

And the path here is via those who paved the way. This year, there has been a lot of celebration around John W. Cromwell, the first Black CPA. Among the many achievements of Cromwell’s family, his father was the chief examiner of the Money Order Department of the U.S. Postal Service. His sister, Otelia, was the first Black graduate of Smith College and went on to earn a Ph.D. in English from Yale in 1926. Cromwell graduated from Dartmouth, as the best science student in the class of 1906. He was a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society, and he taught mathematics at Washington’s Dunbar School, considered the most prestigious high school for Black people in the United States. Cromwell had to travel to New Hampshire to take the CPA exam because, as a Black person, he was not allowed to take the CPA exam in the Washington area. He couldn’t satisfy the work experience requirement because he couldn’t get a job at a CPA firm. 

Another first was Christine Ross, the first woman CPA. She took the CPA exam in June 1898 and scored near the top—second or third in her group. Unfortunately, because of her gender, her certificate was delayed for many months. It was only on Dec. 21, 1899, that Ross received certificate number 143, becoming the first woman CPA. 

I also had the great honor of meeting Bernadine Coles Gines, who, in 1954, became the first Black woman CPA in New York state. She came to New York from Virginia to get her MBA from NYU, because the University of Virginia did not admit Black people then. When she applied to work at a CPA firm, to fulfill the work experience requirement, most CPA firms were white-owned and didn’t hire Black people, and the Black CPA firms, as was common with most CPA firms, did not hire women. Ultimately, she was hired by two Jewish men, co-partners of a CPA firm. When one client objected to her being with the firm, the partner dropped the client. Those were the principles, stances and allyships that moved the profession forward. 

I am going to touch on DEI, but I want to define those terms as I discuss them. 

When I think about diversity, I think of an iceberg. There are various visible dimensions that make us who we are—our age, race, gender, height—but below the surface is so much more, the things we don’t see: marital status, work experience and, for some, disabilities. In order for us to even start talking about equity, we must make sure that as much of us is present in the room as possible. 

As for inclusion, I’ll start with what it’s not. It’s not exclusion; it is not segregation. Integration is closer to inclusion, but not quite there. That could be a ramp for the disabled or some other accommodations. But when you have integration, even though you have accommodations, you’re still treating another group as an “other.” When we have inclusion, we enter a state where we are valued on an equal basis. Everyone feels they belong; there is the same ownership of space. 

Equity is often confused with equality. With equality everybody gets the same things: When we have equality, all spouses can visit their spouse in the hospital, despite gender. With equity, we are recognizing that we all need different things to get to the same place. It is recognizing diversity and giving people what they need. I love Popcorners—it’s great snack. My husband is taller than me, so he can reach them on the high shelf where we keep them, but I can’t. When he’s not around, I have to get a ladder. Equity is the ladder so that I can reach the Popcorners. 

When we talk about our profession in particular, before we can talk about inclusion and equity, we must all be in the room. In particular, Black and Latinx people have been excluded from the profession, as have women. The history of the CPA profession is one where people were excluded for a while due to race, ethnicity and gender. Because of the work experience requirement and people unable to get hired, that exclusion continued over time. 

I’m going to speak about the numbers easiest to find: comparing Black CPAs to Black doctors and lawyers in the United States. In 1997, 2.7 percent of lawyers were Black, 4.2 percent of doctors were Black, and between 0.75 and 0.99 percent of CPAs were Black. In 2020, the American Bar Association collected data showing that 5 percent of lawyers were Black. In 2018, a UCLA study found that 5.4 percent of doctors are Black, and the AICPA’s 2019 Trends Report found that less than 2 percent of CPAs are Black; other reports have found that number to be closer to 1 percent. 

The CPA profession is a generational one. Most current CPAs have a family member (or a friend of the family) who is or was a CPA. If one considers the historically low numbers, due in part to the barriers that certain groups have had to face, it makes sense that representative numbers are very low. The challenge to us (firms, organizations, individuals) is to bridge this gap and figure out how to create this exposure (to be the family member, so to speak). 

Bert Mitchell was the first Black president of the State Society, in 1987. He became a CPA in 1964, and he was the 100th Black CPA in the profession. It’s a big country, with only 100 Black people to represent the profession. It makes these low representation numbers make sense. 1964 is not so long ago. 

It is a challenge to us and to firms to figure out how to bridge the gap. One program that exists is the Society’s Career Opportunities in the Accounting Profession (COAP) program to introduce high school students to the profession. It has been going on since 1987, since the time of Bert Mitchell. NYSSCPA Executive Director and CEO Joanne S. Barry, who just announced her retirement, was instrumental in launching this program in 1987. COAP goes out to unrepresented communities and brings kids to the profession Now, when we think about DEI, diversity is a fact, and inclusion is a choice. Unless we consciously include, we will unconsciously exclude. 

I’m sure most of us have taken unconscious bias training. But according to a Harvard Business Review article, many unconscious bias trainings don’t work. They stop at telling us that we have these biases. And then what? What the Harvard Business Review found is that these trainings can work when they then help us find strategies to address our biases. Imagine a weight-loss program that was just stepping on a scale and stopping. It’s finding strategies to address these biases. 

Diversity is in many ways the easiest step. Companies can hire all they like. They can publish reports. Inclusion and equity is how we retain and advance our talent. It’s where we really must focus our talent. 

One example is Asian and Pacific Islanders They represent 10 percent of professionals in accounting and finance. But only 3 percent are partners. We have to look at advancement and retention It’s a similar story with women. They represent 42 percent of accounting professionals, but only 23 percent of them are at the partnership level. 

And we haven’t even addressed the intersection of the two. A company might say it hires Black men and white women, but if it doesn’t hire Black women, it still discriminates. This process is one that we have to be thoughtful about. I am very confident we can be. 

The AICPA has a new LGBTQ+ initiative. There has been a lack of inclusion and representation for LGBTQ+ CPAs. But some feel they can’t be authentic. This could lead them to not wanting to stay, not feeling welcome. The AICPA has recognized that particular challenge. 

At the NYSSCPA’s recent DEI Conference, there was fantastic keynote speaker who spoke on ageism. It’s important, thinking of pathways, that all who wish to become CPAs should be able to become CPAs, not just college students or people in their 20s. You may think you’re not saying something exclusionary, but it may end up that way. I honestly have found that people’s savviness with computers does not discriminate by age. We should try to leave all these stereotypes behind. We absorb those things without realizing it. 

Veterans also face exclusion in the workplace. Companies are doing a better job of recruiting veterans, but retention remains a challenge. 

There is no one solution. We have to think of the dimensions of diversity that exist. One aspect of diversity is building a good team. In working on a case, you may need somebody familiar with laws, a computer forensics expert, someone good at writing reports, or a private investigator good at stakeouts. You have to be mindful of the fact that a person may come with ideas you’ve never thought about. What they are saying and what they take to the table is unique. 

I want to say something about the generational impact of being a CPA on my own life. In 2019, I went to a wedding in Zimbabwe, where a lot of my family lives. It was a family wedding, and my family was managing the books of the wedding. People love paper trails. Everything is recorded. I have a book of our wedding gifts in duplicate. When I started as a CPA, no one in my family was a CPA. Now I have a cousin at Mazars, a cousin at PwC. I talked to no one about it. When I shared the news of my presidency, one of my cousins said that she had decided to become a chartered accountant because of me. I hadn’t seen or talked to her in years. She saw something in me that made her decide that this is the power we bring when we go into public spaces. 

I often think of Geoffrey Canada, who started the Harlem Children’s Zone. He works with parents from the moment a mother is pregnant, and gets children into the best schools in the United States. The way his magic works is that somebody else in the neighborhood will look at this kid and think, “Michael’s at Harvard? If he can go to Harvard, I can go to Harvard.” 

Since I became a CPA and a member of the Society, I have developed many friendships and relationships. I can call on people for advice. I became an active member because 

I went into meetings knowing nobody and was welcomed and told I could do anything. I look at this, and the ACA and its founding values of building communities. I’m glad to be in a space working toward becoming great and welcoming governors. 

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