Women of Color in Accounting

Exploring the intersection of race, ethnicity and gender.

July 24, 2008
by Katherine Giscombe, PhD

Employment of accountants and auditors is expected to grow faster than average for all occupations through 2014, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. With women and people of color receiving certification in accounting and joining the accounting industry at an increasing rate, according to The National Center for Education Statistics and a 2005 CPA recruitment study by the AICPA's Beatrice Sanders, firms are faced with the job of creating more inclusive environments in a traditionally white, male-dominated, "up-or-out" culture. Although a certain amount of attrition is built into the business model for professional services firms, to stay competitive, accounting firms can no longer afford high turnover among talented professionals whom they train only to become regretted losses.

In Women of Color in Accounting, Catalyst continues its investigation of the experiences of women of color in professional services firms, which are characterized by a client-service focus and firmly entrenched "old boys'" networks. In the report Catalyst benchmarks the experiences of women of color against other demographic groups in the workforce. This examination lets us understand better the "intersectionality" that women of color experience: that is, how a person's different attributes and characteristics interact with one another and inform personal and professional identities, experiences and expectations about privilege and disadvantage in the workplace.


The Catalyst report found women of color had more in common with men of color than they did with white women in their attitudes regarding exclusivity of the work environment and their perceptions that practices intended to support inclusion were not as effective as they could be.

  • People of color felt less included in the accounting firm work environment than did whites. For example, they were more likely to perceive low expectations from their managers and double standards regarding performance evaluation. They felt less connected with influential mentors who could help advance their careers; even those people of color with mentors were likely to feel that their mentors lacked influence as compared with those of their white colleagues. Perhaps because of this, people of color felt more challenged than whites in understanding organizational politics.
  • In judging the firms' responses to diversity and inclusion challenges, people of color were less likely than whites to perceive accountability and commitment. This is consistent with earlier Catalyst research — Deepali Bagati, Retaining People of Color: What Accounting Firms Need to Know(Catalyst, 2007) — that found that people of color tended to perceive diversity practices at their firms as well-intentioned, but suffering from "imperfect execution."
  • Some people of color believed that work-life practices at their firms lacked racial sensitivity. 

There were a few areas in which women of color and white women had similar experiences and perceptions. For example, they both perceived some level of social exclusion from the "old boys'" network and also perceived a lack of support from firms for their family responsibilities.

Most importantly, women of color experienced "intersectionality" in that they faced many barriers to a greater extent than did white women or men of color. Many of these barriers relate to difficulty in navigating a client-based environment, and include lack of similar role models, stereotyping, a greater level of exclusion from networks and difficulty in accessing high-visibility assignments and business development opportunities.


The Catalyst study consisted of both qualitative (interviews and focus groups) and quantitative (survey) data collection. The organization conducted six interviews with senior partners and nine focus groups of professional employees at participating firms. For the quantitative portion of the study, a Web survey was distributed to a sample of employees at some of the 20 largest (by revenue) accounting firms in the United States. One-half of the firms in the sample were from the top four accounting firms and the remainder came from the rest of the top 20. Participating organizations fielded the survey between December 2006 and May 2007. The survey was sent to just under 4,000 individuals, and nearly 1,500 of them responded, for an overall response rate of 36.3 percent.


While we've come a long way, more needs to be done before both sexes and minorities find equal footing and there's less of a gender and racial distinction in the workplace.

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Katherine Giscombe, Ph.D., is vice president, Women of Color Research at Catalyst and leads the Catalyst initiative to address the specific challenges faced by women of color and "visible minorities," a Canadian legal term for specific underrepresented groups. She combines her doctoral training in Organizational Psychology from the University of Michigan and at the Institute for Social Research with her experienced-based perspective and research to design and conduct unique, comprehensive, and solutions-based actionable research. Giscombe speaks on a variety of topics, including career development, glass and concrete ceiling issues, individual strategies for businesswomen, mentoring and managing diversity. She can be contacted at (212) 514-7600, ext. 332.

Founded in 1962, Catalyst is the leading nonprofit corporate membership research and advisory organization working globally with businesses and the professions to build inclusive workplaces and expand opportunities for women and business. To download free copies of this and other Catalyst reports, visit www.catalyst.org. You may also sign up to receive our monthly e-mail updates at news@catalyst.org.