Liz Fisher, journalist

Inclusion is one of ACCA’s three core values – ensuring that the accountancy profession is open to everyone is a fundamental reason for ACCA’s existence. But values are not static over time. They must be reappraised and continually assessed to make sure they remain relevant and are being lived.

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed much in our lives, and there is much discussion of how the world can ‘build back better’. But what does this mean in terms of diversity and inclusion?

A new report from ACCA, Leading inclusion, looks closely at where the profession, accountancy organisations and ACCA itself are today in terms of inclusion and what we can all do to build a better society.

Based on a survey of more than 10,000 members worldwide, the report begins with a careful examination of what diversity and inclusion means. ‘Too narrow a definition of diversity, or too much focus on one aspect over another,’ it warns, ‘can of itself lead to us being divisive.’

Many roundtable participants used cooking analogies, treating inclusion as the recipe and diversity the ingredients

Around 20 virtual roundtable discussions with members around the world were held as part of the research process. During these, many participants used cooking analogies, treating inclusion as the recipe and diversity the ingredients.

One participant in the Middle East, however, put it a different way: ‘When you are creating a garden, you can fill it with just one type of plant. It is still a garden and it may look beautiful. On the other hand, you can fill it with a variety of plants. It is important to take care of each plant, and each variety of plant needs to be tended in its own way, be this the right level of light or humidity. If we give them the right type of care they will thrive. Doing that is inclusion. The variety of plants [the diversity] is easy. Inclusion is harder.’

Economic effect

The economic benefits of diversity have been well documented, and 65% of respondents to the ACCA survey agreed there is a positive link between diversity and organisational performance. Most cited a link between business innovation and diversity, arguing that better decisions are taken by more diverse groups, which leads to an overall improvement in performance. See further findings in our January article.

The report also discusses the impact of the pandemic on diversity and inclusion. One roundtable participant pointed out that the enforced change in working practices could have a positive impact on the proportion of senior female leaders, particularly in audit and assurance, as travel and work commitments have in the past limited the ability of women to rise up the ranks, and declared: ‘If there is anything that comes out of the pandemic, it has shown us that there is another way of working to make life much more inclusive and diverse.’

‘If there is anything that comes out of the pandemic, it has shown us that there is another way of working to make life much more inclusive and diverse’

Accountancy patchy

So is the accountancy and finance profession seen as one that is truly open to all? Overall, 73% of survey respondents believe that it is inclusive. But that is no cause for complacency.

Regional analysis shows there is a greater degree of satisfaction in the work that the profession does to promote inclusion in those parts of the world where the diversity agenda is more mature. In regions where the agenda is still evolving, on the other hand, there is ‘a perceived need to do more’.

In fact, almost two-thirds of respondents said the profession has, or might have, an issue to deal with. So what can be done?

‘The furtherance of the diversity and inclusion agenda is something to which we all have our contribution to make,’ says the report – but only 46% of survey respondents said they knew how to progress the agenda in their own workplace. As the report adds: ‘Knowing the right thing to do can be a challenge, especially as we have a fear of not doing the right thing.’

The way forward

The profession’s focus on ethics could provide a guide. ‘While diversity itself is not an ethical issue,’ the report points out, ‘it should be borne in mind that treating people equitably is. As accountancy and finance professionals we need to ensure that we adopt our ethical stance towards this agenda in the workplace. Often being influential leaders means that we need to ensure that we do the right thing, and are seen to be doing so.’

The report concludes that the profession must continue to focus on diversity to ensure it reaches out to all communities and encourages people of all backgrounds and characteristics to join a diverse profession.

It sets out a range of individual, organisational and profession-wide steps that can be taken to improve and promote inclusion, from using technology to achieve equity within organisations to better making the business case for diversity.

‘Above all, this is a personal journey,’ the report adds. ‘Corporate actions will not encourage us to think differently unless we, ourselves, are willing to change.’

For more information

Find additional materials from ACCA on the theme of diversity and inclusion, including the current webinar series

See also additional statistics from the report highlighted in AB