LGBTQIA employees leaving accounting profession

Cecilia Nysing

Nearly one out of five accountants who identified as LGBTQIA left the accounting profession because of a lack of diversity, equitable treatment or inclusion, according to a recent study.

The study, released in February by the Institute of Management Accountants and the California Society of CPAs, found that only about half of LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex and asexual) people working in accounting view the profession as equitable and inclusive (see story). The study goes beyond examining the impact of discrimination against the LGBTQIA population. It also found that 43% to 55% of female, nonwhite, Hispanic, Latino and LGBTQIA respondents have left a company due to a perceived lack of equitable treatment, and at least 30% of the respondents from each of those groups have left companies because of a lack of inclusion.

Other professions beyond accounting face similar issues as the U.S. grapples with labor shortages and the lingering prejudices that are holding back advancement of qualified workers.

“I have done a lot of work with the Casualty Actuarial Society and Society of Actuaries on DE&I, and there are similar issues in that profession as you see in the accounting profession,” said Brad Monterio, chief learning officer and vice president of member competency and learning for CalCPA. “This has really started to bubble up as an issue in the accounting profession as it was in other professions. There are some real challenges in this profession. Let’s face it.”

Racial and ethnic minorities have long faced hiring discrimination and women have found that advancement in the accounting profession has been slow, although there has been progress at some high-profile firms. But the issue of LGBTQIA employees finding the accounting profession difficult has not been highlighted so much until the report’s release earlier this year.

“I’m particularly focused on not only underrepresented groups as a whole, but I’m concerned about the LGBTQIA community in the profession in particular,” said Monterio. “I’m a member of that segment. I’m not a CPA, but I’ve been working in the accounting profession for almost 25 years. And I know a handful of CPAs and CMAs that are out in the office, literally only a handful in all those years. Only two of them are out. The rest of them are in the closet because they are fearful about how that information will be used against them, whether it’s holding them back from a promotion, access to equal opportunity to prime clients or projects to work on, not having the same raises and compensation, not having access to the leadership track, not being included in company events and programs, as well as overt discriminatory practices. Whether they’re being made fun of, the butt of jokes, microaggressions, you name it, they are overtly attacked for their orientation where it really shouldn’t be an issue and doesn’t affect them professionally as accountants. But it’s a pretty disheartening current state of affairs for this segment of the profession to be fearful of being their authentic selves in the office.”

Up to 20% of the LGBTQIA respondents in the IMA and CalCPA research indicated they have left the profession altogether because of lack of diversity, equity and inclusion. “I was astonished when I saw those numbers because I spent a lot of time and money and effort to study accounting, to get licensed, take the exam and get the experience,” said Monterio. “For someone to leave the profession altogether for another profession, they are making that tradeoff and weighing those options. That’s a huge talent drain from the profession and an opportunity cost because those folks aren’t coming back. We don’t really see accurate numbers on the size of the LGBTQ segment because so many are fearful to disclose in the work environment.”

Other demographic groups are leaving the profession as well, and that could pose problems for accounting firms and departments that desperately need qualified employees in their ranks.

“That’s a large number, and of the segments we looked at in the research, with gender, as well as race and ethnicity, this was the largest number,” said Monterio. “And the numbers for women leaving, as well as non-Caucasian, Hispanic, and Latinx, those numbers are also eye opening and they’re a wakeup call in many ways for the profession. We need to do something. We need to change the lack of diversity, inclusion and equitable access to opportunities for underrepresented groups.”

For the research, the IMA and CalCPA not only did polls, but interviews as well that highlighted some of the issues. “There’s one in particular that stands out for me,” said Loreal Jiles, director of research on digital technology and finance transformation at the IMA. “When we sat and interviewed a gentleman who is a white male who identifies as gay, we were going through the conversation and I asked him to talk about some of his experiences. He asked me a question: ‘Can you imagine if you as a straight person were told you need to act gay?’ And it kind of stopped me in my tracks because I had never thought about it in that context. What it made me do was reflect on how much of myself I would have to compromise to be someone else, effectively. He said, ‘That’s what people who identify as LGBTQIA are going through their entire lives in most instances, the bulk of my adolescence and some of the most formative years in my development, and then I get to a point where I enter a profession and I might have to do that again, where I’ll have to hide myself again.’ That piece, to me, was the most powerful anecdote that I took away from the interviews with regard to this demographic, because our goal here is not so much to point out the differences among the different demographic groups but to help people understand so that they are naturally more inclusive.”

Monterio used to work at a Wall Street firm, where he found he needed to pretend to be straight to be accepted by his colleagues. “I had a female friend who would go with me to social functions,” he said. “I introduced her as my girlfriend, and it was for fear of being judged negatively or even of potentially losing an engagement if somebody didn’t agree with the lifestyle or that orientation and could use that against me, so I hid undercover for quite some time.”

He believes firms need to go beyond specific months like Pride Month, Black History Month and Women’s History Month to support diversity year round. “I would like to believe that these organizations don’t just give out support to all of these diverse groups just in their month of celebration, and that it is part of their DNA, the culture, their belief system, and it’s reflected in their policies and procedures and the way they act and the way they treat people, and then it’s there everyday,” he said. “They don’t just turn it on and off like a faucet.”

Strategies like employee resource groups can help up to a point. “I think the challenge is that almost by nature they can be exclusive instead of inclusive,” said Monterio. “What organizations are starting to say now is, OK, we may have an LGBTQ ERG. However, anyone is free to join and participate. In fact, that’s what encourages wider understanding.”

“I don’t believe that organizations typically set up these ERGs in a goal-oriented nature,” said Jiles. “What is your objective? What are you trying to accomplish with the group? So they turn into social mediums, if you will, for people to congregate, and they end up in many instances being exclusive by nature.”

She believes that not only organizations need to change, but it’s also up to individuals to make the changes in themselves. “What actions can an individual take to improve this that extend well beyond anything from the organizational perspective, and then there’s the lens from the macro level of the organization, what policies, what practices do they need at their organization,” said Jiles. “On the individual front, I think it goes back to equally valuing everyone and respecting everyone. We have to accept that biases do exist, and not just toward minority demographic groups. They exist for all demographics. Another step is to say what do you do to ensure that the biases that I may have are either unraveled or do not impact how I interact with others, or how I make decisions, or judgments.”

Diversity, equity and inclusion should be a natural outgrowth of the accounting profession. “We as accounting professionals have an ethical imperative to progress DE&I, or to be committed to equal practices and fair practices,” said Jiles. “We do this from an audit and accounting perspective all the time. We have the commitment to fair practices and fair representation from a data perspective, and as we think about the businesses we support, this should be a natural extension. We’re already committed from a business perspective, and have been for decades to being regarded as high integrity, honest, fair, with no bias or judgements in the decisions we’re recommending. We just need to have natural extensions of that as individuals.”

The researchers heard a good deal of pushback on the survey from respondents who denied there was a problem. “We got a lot of feedback from people saying, ‘I don’t care what your sexual orientation is. It shouldn’t matter, so why are you telling me this? I don’t go and ask anybody what they’re doing in their homes.’ And what I say to that is, the ask here is not that you agree with the lifestyle,” said Jiles. “The ask here is that you do not treat people differently because of the lifestyle. That, to me, is more important than people trying to decipher if this is something I’m comfortable with. It genuinely doesn’t matter from that perspective. What we’re trying to accomplish when we think about equality as the outcome is we want to make sure that everyone, regardless of their demographic characteristics, is equally valued and respected and equally seen, and ultimately has the same access to opportunities. That goes back to the difference between equality and equity. Equity is ensuring that we can get equal access, equality being the outcome and equity being the way that we get there.”

Monterio believes that the tone at the top of the organization is important for providing greater tolerance and acceptance. “Where you see Deloitte, PwC, IBM, and a number of other organizations taking the lead here is providing a safe environment where people can self-identify as LGBTQIA members,” he said. “That also helps the organization identify allies internally. They can be mentors. They can be sponsors. They can provide a safe environment to better understand the needs of LGBTQIA members of the profession as they’re progressing along their careers. They don’t necessarily need to be LGBTQIA members themselves, but they provide that supportive internal culture to help guide that person along their career and navigate when obstacles arise and get those safely. Accounting has a real opportunity to lead the professions here.”

“This is ultimately about organizational culture,” said Jiles. “An organization can have policies in place and should, but ultimately this is about how you foster a culture that’s inclusive. If leadership says yes, it’s OK for everyone to self-identify and the culture of the organization doesn’t actually match that, then you won’t sustain progress. It’s really getting into how do you change the culture of your organization so that the culture is inclusive, and the way that you do that from a tactical perspective is you have to have zero tolerance for discrimination or decisions based on bias and the like. We have to have safe, anonymous forums for people to be able to report any of those observations that they make. Most major organizations have these today, but they need to assess how effective they are.”

Doing periodic surveys and assessments can help. “We’ve been going back and forth working on additional research for solutions on this, on how you measure progress,” said Jiles. “There’s an element of engaging your broader organization on a regular basis to let them inform how your culture looks or how it feels to them. That can be as simple as surveying people within the organization on a regular basis, not a one-off-survey. You should be tracking the trends and their degree of comfort with different aspects of diversity, equity and inclusion, and then of course you have the harder stats on how you look at the outcomes. Do we have decent representation at all levels throughout the organization? The grounding principle here is this is really about assessing organizational culture. The improvements on DE&I that are made in the short term will not be sustained without significant improvements to organizational culture.”

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