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Real Talk: DEI

January 15, 2024

by Jevonne Shepherd, CPA (licensed in CA) 

I’m not a DEI professional. I’m a CPA.  

I am heavily involved in diversity organizations in both my personal and professional lives, and thus, there is substantial overlap. My journey to become a licensed CPA was arduous, and I frequently explore this journey within the framework of DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) and the accounting profession. 

Three years on from the social justice movement which resulted from the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others, the need for action involving DEI continues. Continued action is needed, because we as a society are past the point of conversation.  

The AICPA publishes an annual Trends Report, which identifies key trends in the U.S. Accounting profession. As of September 1, 2023, there are 672,587 actively licensed CPAs in the United States. 

Per the 2019 AICPA Tends Report – the most recent report to include data on the profession’s demographics – 58% of CPAs were male and 42% female. Additionally, 84% of the Accounting profession identified their ethnicity as white, while the rest of us are squeezed into the remaining 16%: 

  • 10% Asian/Pacific Islander 
  • 4% Hispanic/Latino 
  • 2% Black.  

That means as a CPA, there are 13,450 others like me across the United States. 

To measure how small that number is, State Farm Stadium, which hosted the 2023 Super Bowl LVII, has a capacity of 63,400. This means that Black CPAs would fill up less than 25% of the seats. 

Additionally, per the 2019 AICPA Trends Report, 1% of U.S. firm partners, principals or managing directors are Black. 

It is worth noting that I use the term “Black” instead of “African-American,” because I want to include the experiences of everyone from the African Diaspora. 

The African Diaspora refers to people of African descent dispersed throughout the world, largely because of the slave trade. I have found that many of my Black friends, colleagues, and peers are not American. They are from Cameroon, Belize, Nigeria, Haiti, and varied parts of the world 

Their experiences are different from mine, but some are shared in many ways. 

Thus, I honor our differences and similarities by refraining from using the term “African-American.” 

Recent trends in CPA licensure are the lowest in almost two decades. Per the 2023 AICPA Trends Report, the number of new CPA Candidates was 30,251 in 2022. This is down almost 20% from the number of CPA Candidates in 2006 at 36,078. 

The AICPA has taken steps to enhance the CPA pipeline by convening the National Pipeline Advisory Group. 

The group includes leaders from state CPA societies, state boards of accountancy, academia, the AICPA & CIMA National Commission on Diversity and Inclusion, various firms and businesses in industry. 

As AICPA-CIMA chair, Okorie Ramsey CPA, CGMA, PMP, NACD.DC Chair, has outlined his vision to redefine the future of the accounting profession. This vision involves leveraging technology to create efficiencies to drive value for clients, leading ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) reporting efforts for increased transparency, and providing exposure and development opportunities for underrepresented groups and younger talent, respectively. 

While these efforts will no doubt be effective to potentially create opportunities for the next generation of CPAs, we all can be mindful of ensuring that existing CPAs are supported in their career. This can be accomplished through actions designed to increase a sense of belonging within the accounting profession. That sense of belonging begins with dialogue about DEI.  

DEI conversations are uncomfortable for almost all participants because they usually explore topics of which most would rather not speak – disparities due to race, class, gender and/or socioeconomic status.  

I mentioned earlier about the need for action, and this can actually be found in a dialogue – the action of active listening, asking questions to seek meaningful answers, working collaboratively, and making a commitment to be part of a solution developed collaboratively.  

To be actionable in DEI discussions and efforts, you can start by taking the following actions – considering, discussing and resolving. 

You can consider DEI in the context of a post-social justice movement world:   

  • What was the message now that the noise has relatively quieted?  
  • What does the composition of my team or department say (express or implied) about DEI efforts in my workplace? 
  • What does my recruitment strategy look like? 
  • Where do we look for talent and has this changed in the past x number of years? 

You can discuss behavior and perceptions related to DEI in a safe space by creating it: 

  • Ask questions of coworkers and genuinely listen to the answer. 
  • Determine when the right time and venue are to engage in such a discussion. 
  • Take the temperature of the participants so as not to force a conversation that has the effect of disengaging interest, as opposed to having participants excited about the next discussion. 

You can resolve to develop continued actions around a formal DEI program: 

  • Hire a DEI professional as a Chief Diversity Officer. 
  • Engage in routine DEI training. 
  • Have informal DEI conversations. 
  • Define measurable DEI goals and appoint a group to monitor and track them. 

These solutions may be short-term or long-term, broad or narrow. Whatever the case, the solution should be memorialized in writing, with specific timelines, objectives and outcomes. 

As a non-DEI professional, I have led and engaged in countless DEI conversations for almost a decade. These have come out of informal conversations and formal presentations. I know it takes courage to be vulnerable and admit to genuinely not knowing something about a person or that person’s culture. 

As CPAs, our work life should not simply be all about getting the work done without empathy, acknowledgement or understanding of who is doing that work. 

Jevonne Shepherd, CPA, CMA, CIA, PMP, is a consulting manager at Deloitte and has varied industry experience in finance transformation. Shepherd serves as finance engagement manager and acts as a trusted advisor to clients in a variety of industries and sectors on operational and regulatory projects. You can hear more about this topic at the ASCPA’s Governmental Accounting Conference on February 2, 2024. Register