Diversity’s dividend

The UK’s accountancy industry is going from strength to strength, with the
Big Four earning a very healthy £6.35bn between them this year. But for black or
Asian accountants, the prospects aren’t quite so rosy. Despite studying for the
same exams and gaining the same qualifications, ethnic minorities are falling
seriously behind in the industry.

Ethnic minorities account for just 3% of partners at the Big Four. This
figure in no way reflects the UK’s total ethnic minority population – currently
7.9% – and is much lower than the proportion employed by the rest of the top 50.
Not only should the Big Four be setting an example to smaller firms rather than
lagging behind, they are also missing out on a huge wealth of talent.

Why is this happening? Education could be part of the answer. Poor
opportunities in early life mean ethnic minorities are often unable to enter
higher education. And those who do often don’t make it to the elite institutions
after graduation. The number of ethnic minority students at the top
universities, such as those in the Russell Group, is low. With the top firms
mainly recruiting from the top universities, it’s hardly surprising that ethnic
minority partners are so few and far between.

The big firms are the ones who should understand the benefit of reaching out
to all available talent. They have both the incentive and the resources to make
sure that potential isn’t being wasted.

A good diversity policy also makes sense in terms of profitability. The big
firms make many millions of pounds every year in providing accountancy and
consultancy services to the public sector. Public authorities have a duty to
promote race equality under the Race Relations Act (1976). Increasingly, they
are looking to make sure the organisations they buy from meet the Act’s
requirements. When tendering for public contracts, accountancy firms will have a
significant competitive edge if they can demonstrate they have effective
diversity programmes.

The big accountancy firms need to lead by example. By embracing a more
ethnically diverse workforce, the accountancy industry could break the mould and
lead the way for other business sectors.

Now is the time for real, visible efforts. These firms must turn words into
action by recruiting and training accountants from all ethnicities and

Alan Christie is director of private sector policy at the
Commission for Racial Equality

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