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When Chartered Accountants Save the World

A plan to promote Black talent

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 08 Jul 2021


Initiatives such as the Black Talent Charter are galvanising support for policies that can help address the lack of ethnic diversity in senior roles across financial and professional services.

Boasting an illustrious 30-year career as a barrister, including 10 years as a QC specialising in big-ticket major commercial and corporate disputes, it’s fair to say that Harry Matovu works in one of the most high-profile – and, by his own admission, probably one of the best paid – areas of the Bar. Matovu is passionate about the work he does, but there’s one aspect that has long been a source of both bemusement and frustration.  

“In court, I am the only Black face in most of the cases in which I appear. When I go to receptions with clients and solicitors, I'm often the only Black face in the room. And after 30 years, it struck me that this is absolutely wrong. There's got to be some reason why other black professionals are not doing this work and not making progress in this field.” 

By 2019, Matovu decided that a concerted effort was needed to counter widespread inertia in tackling the dearth of ethnic diversity in senior roles across financial and professional services. The resulting Black Talent Charter took its inspiration at least in part from the Women in Finance Charter, which Matovu says seemed to “move the dial” for gender diversity. 

Signatories to the Black Talent Charter commit to compiling data as a baseline from which to measure progress, Matovu explains. “From that basis, they have to establish challenging targets – not quotas – for the improvement in promotion of Black talent in their company to senior grades, establish action plans and proceed in good faith to try to meet those targets.”

Barely seven months since its launch, the Charter has already galvanised support from some of the biggest names in the City, including ICAEW and accountancy firms PwC, KPMG and Mazars – all united in their commitment to meaningful progress on the promotion of Black talent.

It hasn’t always been that way. Indeed, Matovu believes that debates around ethnic diversity have long played second fiddle to gender in the corporate pecking order of diversity and inclusion (D&I) issues. “There has always been a reluctance to talk about race, and that was coupled with a feeling that organisations can focus on gender diversity as the measure by which all aspects of diversity and inclusion are addressed at a corporate level.” 

The murder of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 and the ensuing Black Lives Matter movement exploded that status quo, propelling the issue of racial inequality up the list of corporate priorities. It added further clout to Matovu’s mission to put Black talent on an equal footing with its largely White counterparts in the City, and it also opened employers’ eyes to the inequalities, unconscious bias and microagression that Black people face across the career advancement and promotion opportunities.

KPMG Partner Richard Iferenta, also Vice-Chair and Head of the firm’s Financial Services Indirect Tax Practice, was instrumental in signing the firm up to the Black Talent Charter as a founding signatory. He agrees that the last year has been a turning point in organisations’ recognition of racial inequality as a business-critical issue. 

“Many businesses had started thinking about racial inequality, particularly amongst the Black community, prior to George Floyd’s death, but this tragic incident has brought the issue to the fore. Since then, we have seen much more progress and momentum with commitments being made by large businesses. One year on, businesses are now reflecting on whether they have made enough progress in driving change.” 

Matovu is keen for signatories to be bold in their aspirations for change. “There's no point in setting a target that you're going to achieve in year one. If you set challenging targets, you don't move the dial and you don't change the world.” And while “challenging targets” might be deemed open to interpretation, Matovu doesn’t believe that calling out those that fail to meet their goals is the answer. None of the data that signatories extract is made public by the Black Talent Charter. “Naming and shaming is not part of the game,” he says. 

Instead, named responsibility for the action plans at the executive level helps focus minds, Matovu believes. At the same time, growing stakeholder expectations of transparency and real commitment towards D&I issues – rather than empty platitudes – are also strong driving forces. “This isn’t built on trust,” Matovu maintains. “It’s built on the way the market works, regulators work and clients work. If you choose to sign up to the Charter and don't publish your data, don't show your targets and are clandestine about what you're doing, your employees will walk, your clients will depart, and your regulators will eventually intrude. That's how it works.”

Amid calls for the government to introduce mandatory ethnicity pay gap reporting, Iferenta says collating, measuring and analysing data is critical to the successful roll out of effective D&I strategies. “When the data stares you in the eye and tells you what’s happening, it’s much harder to ignore,” he says. 

In that respect, historical reliance on the demographic term BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) has allowed organisations to downplay some of the challenges that Black employees face, which more granular analysis could flag up. “Use of the term ‘BAME’, and the data relating to these individual groups as a collective, often paints a skewed picture for organisations, which suggests that they are doing fine or that it’s not a disaster, at least. This is often not reflective of the reality for Black people or anybody else within that grouping,” Iferenta says.

Similarly, headline numbers won’t necessarily tell you the full story, Iferenta warns, if your representation of Black employees is skewed towards the most junior grades. “When you look at the data in more detail, you often find that recruiting Black graduates without giving them career progression opportunities results in a high attrition rate for this demographic. Appropriate processes must be put in place to ensure that Black colleagues are also given the right experience, the right exposure and the right sponsorship.”

Gauging the scale of the task ahead using data is just the start. Then it’s about understanding where biases exist in your recruitment processes. “They should go on the assumption that the Black people they are recruiting are every bit as good as the others,” Matovu says. “Second, if you don’t allocate work so that Black recruits have equal access to opportunities to show their skills and to shine in front of their superiors, you never give them a chance to progress or to be considered for promotion.” 

The plan is to publish annual reports on the Charter initiative, showing the direction of travel on Black talent progression based on signatories’ data, but Iferenta admits that there’s a huge amount of work that needs to go on behind the scenes for companies to make meaningful progress and achieve the targets set. “We recognise it’s a long journey, but a lot of businesses are very positive about bringing about change.”