Inclusivity; is the accounting sector slow off the mark?


With the accounting sector still perceived as being slow off the mark with diversity, equality and inclusion, what should the sector be doing to future-proof itself and attract the next generation? Corporate diversity policies are commonplace, but are they just a box ticking exercise? Sarah Beale, CEO at AAT (Association of Accounting Technicians), who has been involved in DE&I for 20+ years, discusses.

Although businesses are typically happy to make their corporate diversity policies public, very few stand up behind them and share data on the difference they make. Many only report on inclusivity if it’s mandated. For example, in 2021 just 13 FTSE 100 companies reported their ethnicity pay gap.

If you really want diversity, you don’t just want it to make your organisation look good; you want to enable inclusivity, in a real way. Reporting won’t always paint the perfect picture you wish to share; not honest reporting anyway. For example, we’ve been publishing our ethnicity pay gap data since 2021, alongside our gender pay gap data. Although the data shows we’re not in the position we’d like to be, we’re on the journey and we believe that publishing it demonstrates our commitment to this area, keeping the focus on improving internally and championing change.

Reporting increases transparency and accountability. It allows a business to track and communicate its progress in creating a diverse and equitable workplace. This transparency not only builds trust with employees but also with customers, the sector as a whole and the next generation, who increasingly value social responsibility and ethical business practices. 

The fact so many businesses aren’t reporting, begs the question; are corporate diversity policies just a box ticking exercise or is it being taken seriously?

Diversity is often shunned in economic downturns

Despite numerous reports showing the business benefits that diversity and inclusion brings, it’s often deprioritised during economic downturns or company cutbacks. At X, formerly known as Twitter, the DEI team was cut down from 30 people to just two.

There needs to be more boardroom discussions about how inclusivity makes absolute business sense, that directly benefits the bottom line.

A report from McKinsey showed that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25 percent more likely to be above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile.

American economist and Harvard professor Paul Gompers has put a lot of time into studying the impact of diversity on business. During research, spread over a number of years, he looked at the investment decisions made by thousands of VCs. His findings reveal the more alike the teams, the lower their investment performance.

Recruit from the widest talent pool possible

For some businesses, the problem lies in attracting applicants from a wide demographic in the first place. There are tech systems that can help with this and provide information on which recruitment stage is causing an imbalance in candidates. If the data shows that 90% of raw applicants come from one demographic, you can drill down and understand if it’s your brand, your job adverts, or a later stage in the process. 

Imbalances can be addressed through decoding job adverts. For example, if you’re not attracting many women, you can decode the advert and see if that makes a difference. It’s something I tried in a previous role and AAT already do this. It doesn’t mean that a woman will definitely get the role, but at least as a business you’re reaching women applicants who feel comfortable and confident in coming forward and applying. 

You want your business to be attractive to the widest population possible – so you can find the person who is the best of their crop in every recruitment that you do. Recruiting the widest span of people, including neurodiversity, brings diversity of thought, perceptions and ideas that may not have been tabled before. It also brings new ways of talking to your customers; ways that could increase membership, customer numbers or loyalty, or help you open the door to areas of business that were previously closed to you. It also helps operationally to attract the next generation of talent which is increasingly important for a sector like accounting, that still struggles with a traditionally ‘stuffy’ reputation. 

The next generation want to make an impact

The next generation – Gen-Z – will account for more than a quarter of the workforce by 2025 according to the World Economic Forum. For them, it’s much more about the impact they can make – whether that’s an impact on the environment, an important social cause or financial consideration. I think it’s fabulous that this sort of thing excites and interests people more and more now. 

The accounting industry is still steeped in the standards, legislation, and acronyms. While there will always be a place for this, it doesn’t have to be the narrative we lead with. We need to stop talking about the function of what we do and start talking about the impact of what we do – the difference our profession can, and does, make in the world. 

For example, we do a lot of work in Botswana. At a basic level we assess and award qualifications for accountancy which enables access to professional membership. But this is just the tactic, not the overall picture of what we do. It’s about being part of a movement to superpower an entire economy and the families within it. We’re giving people access to skills and training that not only changes their individual prospects but those of everyone around them, and the generations following. The ripple effect is huge. 

Still a box ticking exercise?

Are corporate diversity policies just a box-ticking exercise? Probably, in some cases, yes. But in others, it’s being done with a genuine desire to make a difference because they want to – not because they feel they have to. 

Inclusivity has been a buzzword for so long. But we need to start giving it the respect it deserves. It’s not just the right thing to do; it’s a business imperative that drives long-term success and business results.

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