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Open to everyone?

open to everyone

By Ian Lavis on behalf of Praxity Global Alliance

A major new report by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) suggests the profession needs to do more to tackle inclusion and equity in the workplace.

The Leading Inclusion report, published in January, shows there is a lack of understanding when it comes to diversity, inclusion and equity in the workplace.

Based on a survey of more than 10,000 accounting and finance professionals around the world, the 64-page report highlights the profession has come a long way but there is significant work to be done to provide equal opportunities for all.

It reveals that while 73% of respondents think accounting is inclusive, 63% believe there is or maybe “a diversity issue that needs to be addressed” and 54% don’t know what to do about it.

In response, ACCA recommends wide-ranging action plans for firms and individuals to help create a more inclusive and fair working culture.

The right thing to do

Commenting on the key findings, Helen Brand, CEO of ACCA, says in the report: “Our research suggests that professional accountants are not entirely comfortable in knowing the ‘right’ thing to do.”

Education and training, through ACCA and other accounting organisations, will be key to addressing the challenge of diversity and inclusion in the profession but this is only part of the story.

“All of us involved with the profession should take time to consider this and identify how we can build towards a better future, by both using our networks to collectively further this agenda and explaining clearly the value that an open profession brings to society,” the CEO explains.

Praxity Global Alliance – the world’s largest association of independent accounting firms – is among the organisations leading from the front. Inclusion was one of the main themes at the Alliance’s annual global conference in October and Praxity member firms in the USA such as DHG and Plante Moran have made huge progress in developing an inclusive culture with new programmes and designated officers.

However, there is clearly room for improvement across the profession.

Understanding

What makes diversity, inclusion and equity particularly challenging is everyone’s interpretation of these terms will be different, depending on factors such as upbringing, social communities and workplaces.

Generally speaking, the terms can be summarised as follows:

  • Diversity = the mix of people in society
  • Inclusion = ensuring the mix works together
  • Equity = ensuring fair treatment

Diversity is commonly defined as individual differences such as personality and life experience, and group/social differences such as race, class, gender, religion and sexual orientation.

Inclusion is effectively the next step, whereby organisations actively embrace differences so that everyone is not only welcome but has equal access and opportunities. It’s about being part of a team as opposed to simply being liberated.

Equity goes further and must not be confused with equality. The latter is defined as giving everyone the same resources or opportunities whereas equity is about recognising that each person has different circumstances and may require different support to reach an equal outcome.

These different terms are neatly summed up in a cartoon published by the American University in Washington DC and originally sourced from the Center for Story-Based Strategy:

 

Even when these terms have been fully understood, a big challenge facing HR departments been how to demonstrate a link between diversity and inclusion and better performance.

The report suggests this link is now a given, with 65% of respondents believing there is a strong link between diversity and inclusion and organisational success.

Pressure is mounting on organisations to take this issue seriously. ACCA states regulators and lenders “are increasingly focusing on an ethical and sustainable lens in evaluating organisations”. Moreover, the association says innovation is “strongly linked to diverse views and opinions”.

Themes

ACCA surveyed members, affiliates and what it terms future members. The study included a series of roundtables in different countries. The respondents are predominantly from Western Europe (29%), Asia Pacific, South Asia and Africa. Nearly half are aged 18-35.

Based on the findings, the report explores common diversity and inclusion themes such as race and gender, and examines how conscious and unconscious bias may influence individuals, teams and organisations.

It also looks at the importance of less obvious themes such as social inclusion and social justice, and the link between diversity, inclusion and ethical behaviour.

In terms of equal opportunities, it is interesting to note that the majority (78%) of respondents think the accounting profession is “open to all”, rising to well over 80% in North America.

However, 68% believe the profession should do more to promote diversity and inclusion among its membership, with large variations depending on the region. A higher percentage of respondents in the Middle East, Asia Pacific, South Asia and Africa think more needs to be done.

There is also considerable room for improvement in terms of equal opportunities. Only 52% say there is an equal opportunity to succeed while 61 % think their work environment is free from harassment and discrimination.

Sadly, only 64% of respondents feel comfortable being themselves. More than a quarter (29%) feel only partially comfortable and 7% do not feel comfortable at all.

What next?

The ACCA report argues that organisations need to consider where they are on the journey to inclusion, and take steps to complete it.

It outlines five stages in the journey:

  1. Basic – recognition and compliance
  2. Awareness – grassroots engagement is started and measured
  3. Understanding and application – strategies are being implemented
  4. Integrated – diversity and inclusion are fully integrated into day-to-day activities
  5. Sustainable – diversity and inclusion are embedded in day-to-day activities and the impact on organisational performance is clear

The problem facing many organisations is a lack of understanding among individuals of the steps that are required to complete this journey.

Less than half (46%) of respondents say they understand the steps they might take in the workplace to promote diversity and inclusion, while 37% have a partial understanding and 10% have no understanding at all.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the degree of understanding of the steps needed to be more inclusive “are more appreciated in younger generations than the more senior ones”.

Recommendations

To tackle the issues raised, ACCA urges everyone to play a part, at both organisational and individual level.

It recommends larger firms should:

  • Establish a diversity and inclusion policy and review legal and regulatory frameworks
  • Develop a sense of belonging and a culture of fair treatment
  • Focus on creativity to encourage diversity and inclusion
  • Support flexibility to help attract a diverse workforce
  • Lead from the top, with empathy, and hold leaders accountable
  • Measure, review progress and reinforce with communications and external reporting

Smaller firms should focus on leading from the top while establishing clear understanding at individual level. They should create a culture where diversity and inclusion is the norm, ensuring policies support the modern workplace. Aligning with community partners like charities could prove beneficial in this respect, ACCA says.

In contrast, individual actions include:

  • Know how to align their organisation’s diversity goals with business goals
  • Provide honest, open feedback
  • Actively engage as a mentor or mentee
  • Speak up and encourage open dialogues
  • Welcome ideas that are different to your own
  • Commit to continuous improvement

ACCA states: “While we might believe that we represent a profession that is open to all, that belief may itself come from a perspective of privilege.”

The report concludes: “The profession cannot afford to be complacent: rather, it must continue to focus on the issue, to ensure that we continue to reach out to all communities, to represent social justice and equity through our values and ethics. We need to encourage people of all backgrounds and characteristics to join the diverse profession and to continue to educate ourselves as well as educating and supporting others.”