'Not being racist' is not enough
In recognition of the Black Lives Matter movement and celebration of Black History Month, Kayleigh Graham explores the need for diversity within the accounting industry and how you can start to champion anti-racism.
The accounting industry is renowned for being dominated by white males and has been notoriously slow to embrace change, so it’s exciting to see diversity become more of a mainstream topic.
Whilst conversations are beginning to take place, change is slow across the industry and I believe that this is down to the ‘work focused’ culture of accountancy.
We have seen a huge shift in the work accountants are undertaking, with Xero’s 2020 report stating that 76% of firms expect most of their revenue to come from consultancy/advisory work in five years time. This provides an exciting opportunity for accountants to work closer than ever with their clients.
Diversity in thought, opinions and experiences is key to ensuring that businesses/individuals get access to the tools and support they need to succeed. Your value as a resource to your clients grows as you add new perspectives and ideas.
During my childhood, I was bullied due to the colour of my skin. When I started my career in banking, I was the only woman and the only person of colour in my office. Five years on, I am now working in the fintech/accounting space and I am proud to say that I have found my voice. I'm an advocate for the change I hope to see, and I hope to help others find their voices, too.
A few years ago, the night before an interview for my role in Corporate Banking, I asked my mum to straighten my afro hair. "Why?" She asked. "Because it looks more professional," I said. My mum just stared at me.
That was a pivotal moment for me. Why was I trying to change myself to fit other people's standards of what a ‘finance professional’ is? And, more importantly, how long had I been doing that? From that moment I have made every effort to be loud and proud about my heritage, the colour of my skin, my big curly hair and the value that I bring to this world.
Most people are good people. Fundamentally, people are not racist – most would be offended if you were to suggest otherwise. However, everyone has unconscious biases (myself included). And this can mean people make decisions and behave in ways that negatively impact people of colour (POC) or indeed any minority, whether gender, creed, sexuality, fertility or other.
In the wake of the horrific murders of 2020, in which too many black men and women have lost their lives, the huge media presence of the Black Lives Matter movement has challenged people to make changes now. People have been forced to look at themselves, to educate themselves and to reflect upon their own unconscious biases towards POC.
The BAME 2020 survey highlighted that only 1 in 250 partners across the top eight accountancy firms is black. After the survey results were published, EY diversity and inclusion sponsor partner Sayeh Ghanbari said: “We know that progress on racial equality hasn’t been fast enough and that there is more we must do.”
We need to start seeing active change.
"Not being racist" is not enough.
Passive racism in the form of making excuses for racist comments/behaviour, dismissing them by saying things such as "they're only kids they don't understand," "that's just how things were when they were growing up," and "they didn't mean it like that" is unacceptable.
The black community needs people to stand up beside us and get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Ask the difficult questions, challenge behaviours and educate yourself about the history of police brutality, slavery, workplace discrimination and your own unconscious biases.
It's ok to say that you don't know enough, if you're going to start seeking that knowledge.
It's ok to say that you hold unconscious biases against POC, if you're going to start challenging your own thinking.
It's ok to say that you have been ignorant of racist remarks/behaviour in the past, if you ensure that doesn't happen again moving forward.
Let's be uncomfortable. And then start implementing change.
What Can You Do?
So, what can you do to start actively fighting racism in your day to day life?
1. Be aware of your unconscious biases. Do you shy away from pronouncing difficult names? Do you think that braids, dreadlocks or afros look "less professional'? Do you change your vocabulary when around POC to fit stereotypes? If you use any graphics of people in your marketing, are they all white?
2. Stop looking at black people to instigate change. A YouGov poll conducted in 2018 showed that over half of the black UK workforce has been subject to workplace racism, and so many are afraid to speak up and don't know where to start. Take the initiative to open the conversation and then be ready to listen. You might not like what you hear, you may be uncomfortable, but listen.
3. Adopt a zero-tolerance approach to racist behaviour. Do not ignore, dismiss or downplay these things. Speak up, express your concerns and make it clear it won't be tolerated. This will feel uncomfortable at first, and that's ok. The more you do it, the easier it will become.
4. Educate yourself. Whilst accounting specific diversity/anti-racism material is limited, there are several books, films and documentaries available to help you with understanding the topic at a broader level. Here are some of my personal recommendations:
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
They Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, And A New Era In America’s Racial Justice Movement by Wesley Lowery
‘When They See Us’ (2019) - Available on Netflix
Things aren't going to change in a day, in a week or even a month. We all need to show up and actively fight racism daily. We can’t switch off or ignore it.
Black lives matter. Now. Tomorrow. Always.
For more on diversity and why the profession needs to take it seriously, tune into People Matters with Lucy Cohen on 26 October at 9am. In celebration of Black History Month, this episode explores why firms shouldn’t be a silent bystander and explains how a diverse team can strengthen your firm and how you serve your clients.
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Kayleigh began her career in corporate and commercial banking, before working at an alternative lender and most recently joined the partnerships team at Capitalise, a fintech adviser-led funding platform, designed to empower accountants to help their clients discover and access the funding they need to succeed.