“Still work to be done” on diversity in accountancy, industry leaders say

The accounting industry must work harder to reduce inequality and create more opportunities for people from minority and lower socio-economic groups, according to market participants.

“We know there is still work to be done on inclusion and diversity—the existence of pay gaps, primarily driven by a lack of fair representation at senior levels, shows us this,” said Sarah Churchman, chief inclusion, communities and wellbeing officer at PwC UK.

“It’s important to take a long-term view of the pipeline of future employees and leaders to ensure the future workforce is representative and diverse.”

New research from GetApp UK has found that 59 percent of SME employees believe their company still has work to do to improve diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Studies have also demonstrated that this stance is not unfounded. A survey by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA), for instance, found that nearly 90 percent of its members were of white ethnicity.

“All the research points to there being significant inequality and lack of opportunity for people from lower socio-economic and black and minority ethnic groups,” it said.

Similarly, Financial Reporting Council research found that while women make up 46 percent of manager-level roles at audit and accountancy firms, just 17 percent climb to partner level roles.

According to Andrew Harding, chief executive of management accounting at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, coronavirus has prompted further challenges in this space.

“We know that the pandemic has impacted progress on diversity, equality and inclusion initiatives.

“Diverse employees – including women, LGBTQIA+ employees, people of colour and working parents – have had to face some difficult challenges, both in their professional and personal lives.”

Echoing this, Jenn Barnett, head of inclusion, diversity and wellbeing at Grant Thornton, pointed to findings from the Social Mobility Commission, highlighting that individuals from non-working class backgrounds are 60 percent more likely to be in a professional job.

“As a profession, we know that there is work to do to increase opportunity and equality, create more diverse role models and widen access for people from all backgrounds,” she said.

Cross-industry efforts

However, a number of collectives and organisations are taking measures to bolster diversity and inclusion in the UK accountancy market.

Access Accountancy, for instance, is a group of organisations aiming to improve access to the profession for people from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

In addition, there are specific measures that exist today that seek to increase awareness and improve the landscape.

These include benchmarking indices and charters such as the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index, the Working Families Top Employers, the Race at Work Charter and the Social Mobility Employer Index.

“The inclusion and diversity agenda is under a spotlight and it is a complex issue,” said Barnett, going on to note that the indices and charters are “highly publicised and act as tools for both talent attraction and providing robust action plans to address the [diversity] deficit”.

She also highlighted that in July 2021, the Financial Conduct Authority, Prudential Regulation Authority and Bank of England sought views on regulatory plans to improve diversity and inclusion in the financial services sector via a joint discussion paper.

“The discussion paper set out policy actions such as using targets for representation and measures to make senior leaders accountable for diversity and inclusion in their firms.”

Taking progressive action

Churchman went on to argue that, in order for firms to be truly proactive when it comes to diversity and inclusion, the matter has to be approached holistically.

“At the same time as taking action to improve the diversity of your workforce, you also need to focus on nurturing a culture of inclusion so that everyone feels that they can be themselves,” she said.

“This is not just a task for HR – it requires buy-in from everyone, from senior leaders through to managers and team leaders.”

This was echoed by Harding. The industry must adopt a fundamental, collaborative approach to inclusion and opportunity, he said.

“To succeed, we must not only focus on developing our skill sets, but we must also focus on creating and fostering an inclusive accounting and finance profession at every level – it’s everyone’s responsibility.”

Barnett gave a similar view, highlighting the importance of cultural norms and noting the eradication of “cognitive bias” as a key stepping stone.

“While targets are important to give purpose and to show progress and commitment, they cannot be the whole story.

“Recognising cultural norms, deeply ingrained cognitive bias in decision-makers and processes, holding leaders accountable for sponsoring diverse talent, shifts in language and behaviour, and having powerful networks and allies acting as a voice for change are also key.”

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