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Group of people holding hands AccountingWEB Listen, act and change: Tackling barriers to race equality in accounting

Listen, act and change: Tackling barriers to race equality in accounting


Molly Macfarlane discusses with Kayleigh Graham the barriers to achieving race equality in the workplace, the progress that has been made and the remaining challenges that need to be addressed.

12th Feb 2024
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Last week was Race Equality Week, an annual UK-wide movement encouraging organisations and individuals to address the barriers to race equality in the workplace. 

This year’s campaign was “Listen, Act and Change”, emphasising the importance for workplaces to demonstrate active listening through their actions, rather than just through verbal agreements.

The need for companies to take action and make meaningful change comes after recent research from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) showed that two in five black, asian and ethnic minority colleagues experience racism at work and many choose not to report it because they worry it won't be taken seriously or it will impact their career and workplace relationships. 

Kayleigh Graham, head of partnerships and growth at Telleroo and speaker at the Festival of Accounting and Bookkeeping (FAB), has been ensuring that conversations are being had about diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) in the accounting profession. 

When she first started working with accountants five years ago, she noticed the lack of conversations that firms were having about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). 

“In 2020 there was the huge social media explosion around George Floyd and Black Lives Matter but it felt like the profession was silent on the topic. It was everywhere and yet when you looked at the accounting profession, there was nothing,” she said. 

Graham has since been continuing these conversations, working with firms one-on-one, looking at their hiring procedures and exploring their internal efforts to support diverse candidates.

What has changed?

Since the five years that Graham has been working with accountants, she has seen a positive change. “There has been a huge improvement in the conversations and the awareness. For example, people are more aware when they’re putting together panels at industry events, they don't just have an all-white male lineup,” she said. 

But now, the goal is to urge the firms that present an appearance of change to take real action. “Some know that they have to appear to be doing the right thing and so they will nod but they're not going to be the ones that show up to a workshop. They are going to wait until someone says we have to do something about this,” said Graham.

“However, it’s no different to anything else in the profession. Until people feel the pain, they won’t typically do anything to change it. I don't think it's necessarily restricted to DEI, it extends to everything. They'll put up with the same poor quality tax software until it's bad enough to change it. It's just the nature of the beast,” she continued. 

But Graham emphasised that it shouldn’t stay like that. 

Unconscious bias 

When asked what barriers need to be addressed, Graham said that unconscious bias is still a huge problem. “We all hold such high levels of unconscious bias and we do things without even realising, making it hard to identify and change those behaviours.”

The issue that Graham raised was the fact that unconscious bias will always be there and so overcoming it is naive. She advised: “It's not about overcoming it, it's about becoming aware of your biases so that you can navigate through them successfully.”

She used an example to show how unconscious bias might affect the hiring process and why it's important to address the issue. “Let’s say a name is difficult to pronounce, your brain goes, ‘That’s going to be uncomfortable’ and so you naturally gravitate somewhere else.”

To overcome ths, Graham said employers could "change the CV process or just learning how to ask difficult questions”.  

Because everyone has some level of unconscious bias, it can create a vicious cycle in the workplace. Graham explained: “There is also a lot of bias that's held by minority groups because they have experienced discrimination at some point in their life.” 

She added that therefore, if an issue occurs at work, instead of seeing the reality of the situation, both employees and employers might unknowingly reinforce each other's biases and nothing will ever improve. 

Why mentorship and education is so important 

Unconscious bias will never improve unless firms and organisations implement education and mentorship programs. Graham explained that education is “so important in understanding why people think these things and how to navigate that thinking.

“There is a huge lack of education around what racism at work looks like in 2024. It’s much more discreet but it’s still there,” she said.

When discussing the TUC research statistics, Graham brought up the importance of mentorship in providing a safe space for people to report issues. “Mentorship is huge in being able to communicate your feelings and being able to do that without fearing negative consequences.”

Firms still have work to do in addressing barriers to race equality, not being silent bystanders and educating and bringing awareness to these issues. However, Graham was hopeful that things will continue to improve. 

“There is work to be done but I am positive that things will change. I’ve seen so much change already.”

Come to Kayleigh Graham’s DEI workshop at FAB 

Interested in hearing more about what Graham has to say about the need for diversity within the accounting profession? Join her DEI workshop at FAB on 13 and 14 March at the NEC, Birmingham. 

She will be speaking more about unconscious bias, why firms shouldn’t be a silent bystander and how a diverse team can strengthen your firm. 

“I’m excited because it's going to be interactive and practical. Let’s have this discussion and let's tackle these difficult questions head-on,” Graham said.

Book your free ticket now.