When it comes to fostering diversity and inclusion, the accounting profession is a leader – but there is still plenty to do, writes Azlin Lutfi.
This article was originally published on Acuity.
Numbers are universal. While languages developed organically within cultures and regions, mathematics travelled with trade.
The foundation and principles of maths are the same all over the world. Whether you are in Australia or Africa, one plus one equals two.
This is a key reason why so many students from non-English speaking backgrounds choose maths-based university degrees such as accounting and finance, and actuarial science.
Strong English-speaking skills are beneficial but they are not critical.
As such, the different countries and cultures represented in an accounting lecture trump almost every other course.
Yet, in the real world outside university, the profession’s senior leaders look remarkably similar to every other profession and industry. There is a significant lack of diversity.
Promoting women boosts profits
Taking the crudest measurement of diversity – gender – women remain underrepresented in senior roles at large accounting and audit firms, and noticeably absent from senior roles in small-to-medium-sized accounting practices.
Despite representing about half of Australian accounting graduates since the turn of the century, women hold only a third of senior accounting roles.
In short, universities are doing an excellent job of attracting talent and promoting accounting as a desirable career path for women, but that is yet to translate into equal opportunities at a senior level.
Consequently, Australian firms could be missing out on the financial benefits of having more women in key decision-making roles. According to a UK study, listed companies where women hold one-third or more of senior leadership roles are more than 10 times more profitable than those without.
Unfortunately, women also continue to earn less than their male counterparts, with the 2019 CA ANZ remuneration survey finding the average female CA earns about 25% less than the average male CA.
Accountancy should lead in employing people of colour
Looking beyond gender, the statistics also suggest that people of colour need to overcome significant obstacles to get a fair go.
For example, of the 200,000-odd qualified accountants in Australia, only 50-60 identify as being Indigenous Australian.
More broadly, 95% of senior leaders in Australian business, politics and universities have an Anglo-Celtic or European background, although non-European and Indigenous Australians make up about 24% of the population, according to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s 2018 Leading for Change report.
The accounting profession is strongly positioned to lead change in this area and, importantly, benefit from it.
Why diversity and inclusion supercharges innovation
Diversity of voices and perspectives in an organisation – particularly at the top – leads to greater creativity and innovation, more empathy and compassion, and eliminates blind spots.
In an environment where all, or most, key decision-makers come from a similar background and share similar experiences, it is easy for blind spots to appear. This has the potential to impact strategy, recruitment and promotions, as people tend to lean towards those they have more in common with.
However, leadership groups with a mix of gender, backgrounds and ethnicity tend to challenge ideas and solutions more.
A diverse team can also lead to greater innovation because it encourages different perspectives and more discussion and debate. This equips businesses to better understand their customers. It is also valuable and important because it can help companies identify and mitigate risks.
The profession that can visually demonstrate that it is possible for anybody to succeed at the highest level, irrespective of gender, race, religion and sexual orientation, stands to secure the best and brightest minds from the community.
Fostering diversity in accounting
Several years ago, our firm hired an extremely bright and ambitious accounting intern. Zandile grew up in Zimbabwe and had a distinct African accent, despite living and studying in Australia for six years. She told me about her struggle to gain full-time employment as an accountant and how she often felt uncomfortable walking through Sydney’s CBD because no-one looked like her.
Zandile could not accept that a multicultural nation like Australia did not embrace diversity in corporate life so she established Immployment Connect, a free mentoring platform targeted at young African and Caribbean graduates.
Since February 2019, Immployment Connect has helped more than 100 young people by connecting them to the right mentors and presenting opportunities in the finance and legal industry.
As a former Immployment Connect mentor and someone who migrated to Australia from Malaysia, I am also passionate about fostering diversity in accounting. I find my background and upbringing make me more patient, understanding and relatable, particularly when dealing with clients who are facing challenges.
For the accounting profession, COVID-19 has reminded us that accounting is not just about numbers and compliance. It is about helping people.
Accountants have been able to help individuals, households and businesses facing severe hardship to access government benefits and meet their financial obligations.
Personally, my education and training, coupled with my unique perspective and experiences, have helped me build trust and rapport, and are a benefit to my clients.