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Why are CPA firms mostly white and male when they’re so dedicated to diversity?

Visitors at a number of accounting firm career sites will realize that their carefully written commitment to diversity all sound the same. The problem is that everybody uses the same (safe) language because most firms are describing the same types of programs that aren’t really solving the problem.

Here are three ways new accounting graduates can figure out what’s really going on at a firm and see if its values are in line with theirs:

Count names and/or faces on firm’s management committee

New grads should start counting the actual number of women and minorities on a firm’s management committee and if featured at their website, among its partners and principals. This is to find out if the accounting firm at least meets, and hopefully beats, the overall averages for women and minorities in top spots. At the very least, the firm should report steady improvement, right?

Most “best places to work” lists mention workplace benefits and amenities, not programs that actually hold leaders accountable for retaining and advancing diverse staff.

The Accounting & Financial Women’s Alliance (AFWA) sponsored the “Best CPA Firms for Women” list based on the Accounting MOVE Project, an annual benchmarking report that shows firms how they are doing in terms of advancing women and diverse staff, and how they can improve. The truth is that women comprise 51% of CPA firm employees but only 26% of partners and principals. That’s according to the soon-to-be-released 2019 Accounting MOVE Project report (check out the 2018 report and archives for the inequity backstory).

If women are scarce in leadership, minorities are practically absent. White people hold 94% of partner and principal positions at firms. All minorities, together, share the remaining 6% according to the 2018 Diversity & Inclusion Report for CPA and Advisory Firms.

See a firm’s leadership pipeline

But what about the pipeline, you say? Are there women and minorities who can automatically move up, as baby boomers retire?

Unfortunately, only 52% of firms have formal succession planning. Without a plan, chances are slim that women and minorities will wait around for opportunities that haven’t materialized for others. They leave.

Here’s how to look at a firm’s pipeline. Go to the news section of its site and look at the makeup of the last few “partner classes.” If the firm is just promoting more of the same, its leadership will continue to be more of the same.

See if women are heading up new practices

New grads should see if women are assigned to open new markets and head new practices. This is important because running an office or practice is a microcosm of running a whole firm. That’s how partners qualify, eventually, to be the top dog.

So, that’s how new accounting grads can tune up their diversity BS detector for the job-hunting season to find the “best place to work.”