ICAEW.com works better with JavaScript enabled.

Why accountants should care about diversity and inclusion

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 21 Jul 2021

An EY Diversity Champion outlines key benefits the accountancy sphere will realise once they make the profession more inclusive. It starts with a spotlight directed at succession planning metrics.

On 23 June, ICAEW hosted a Member Spotlight event that featured Catherine Vaughan who is a Partner at EY Ireland and diversity champion. Key takeaways included the relevance of diversity and inclusion (D&I) for accountants, how and to whom we communicate D&I messages and practical steps we can take to make the profession more inclusive. 

Vaughan is an expert in financial crime, compliance and ethics and has been named one of the OUTstanding-Financial Times Top 100 Executives for Inclusion. Throughout the event she advocated the importance of D&I for all accountants. 

Why D&I matters to accountants

Vaughan outlined four clear reasons why diversity and inclusion matters to accountants. Firstly, there is a moral obligation. As accountancy is a profession, people are looking to their accountant as someone to trust. Accountants provide guidance, which means moral guidance as well. D&I is a behaviour and the profession should be an example of how people should behave.

Secondly, there are tactical reasons for why accountants should care about D&I. Vaughan quoted statistics showing that if you are ranked high for D&I as an organisation, you are better at teaming and collaboration, you have a better retention rate, a better market share and a greater chance of succeeding in new markets. As businesses are focused on growth, these facts demonstrate how important D&I is to successful business.

Thirdly, accountants have to build for the future and not just for the now. Accountants build partnerships that will sustain into the future so they’ve got to think about who is the next wave. Key questions are: where is my pool of future talent? Am I doing enough to help them develop?

Finally, Vaughan argued: “whether in the profession or industry, our clients and customers want to be reflected in us. They want to feel empathy between us and themselves.” For people to believe that you will help them, there has to be a level of understanding. You have to be able to identify with them.

How to communicate D&I topics

Next she turned to questions of how and to whom accountants should be communicating messages around D&I. There is a target audience and those are people of privilege: White, male (and female), middle-aged and well-educated, who are running the show. As accountants, according to Vaughan, there is an obligation to convince oneself and one’s colleagues and counterparts. It is not enough to assume this is ‘someone else’s responsibility’. She included herself in the privileged group in charge who need to continually be reminded of the importance of inclusion.

When communicating about D&I, it is important to understand what is being asked of people. It is more than a ‘tell’ instruction, ‘you need to be more diverse’, rather it is an ask for change management. Succession planning is a good example. When a White person is always being replaced by a White person, a man is always being replaced by a man, and a straight person is always being replaced by a straight person, there is no change. You need to break the cycle. Questions should be asked about who is making decisions around these replacements and how those patterns can change. Strategies are needed to break down groupthink and properly diversify and, most importantly, include people with different perspectives in the decision-making process.

Practical D&I steps we can take

Vaughan also made suggestions for actions that can be taken to improve D&I in organisations. These included measures organisations can take as well as a shift the profession can make when it comes to recruitment.

It is helpful for organisations to have D&I scorecards (as is done at EY) which include things like percentage of women in the leadership team, gender pay gap, training and development, pipeline, and senior leadership roles of influence. Other measures involve self-identification from staff. Employee groups are also important, whether related to ethnicity, education diversity, LGBT+, religion or other areas. Overall, key questions should be asked about the nature of the leadership team, succession planning metrics and training and development.

Vaughan then spoke of the importance of looking beyond university degrees for recruitment. As an example of why there is talent beyond higher education, she pointed out the high rates of LGBT+ young people who become excluded from the home and thus formal education when they come out. They may be talented, but on paper they do not tick the expected boxes. You might be losing your highest potential future talent without even meeting them.

D&I is about going back to our core values of the profession which relate to fairness, equity and trust. All accountants have a moral obligation to remember that. Never underestimate what’s going on behind someone’s eyes. Diversity and inclusion give you the reason to find out why someone is different and then to invite them in to express that difference and contribute.