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Despite Need for CPAs, Women of Color Struggle to Gain Experience, Support, and Exposure Essential to Succeed in Accounting Firms, According to Latest Catalyst Study

Report examines unique race and gender challenges for women of color, as well as perceived ”imperfect execution” of diversity programs

Workplace experiences of women of color are vastly different from those of white women, white men, and men of color, according to Women of Color in Accounting, the second report in Catalyst’s breakthrough Women of Color in Professional Services Series. Furthermore, the study finds that these unique experiences should be recognized in order to better engage women of color and offer this crucial employee group greater access to advancement opportunities.

The report develops findings that compare the experiences of women of color with other demographic groups and provides a critical look at “intersectionality,” which this study defines as the juncture between race/ ethnicity and gender as it specifically impacts women of color. The accounting industry faces increasing talent recruitment and retention demands, and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of accountants and auditors is expected to grow faster than average through 2016. More than half the graduates earning accounting degrees are women, and women of color are a critical part of the talent pool for accounting firms. Yet according to this study, barriers for women of color include race-based disadvantages, double standards, and a lack of access to high-visibility engagements. These barriers result in women of color having low satisfaction in their careers, which is a significant predictor of intent to leave their firms.

“The accounting industry has made great strides towards building a more diverse and inclusive workplace. The fact that the ‘big four’ accounting firms supported this study demonstrates a commitment to making their diversity strategies more effective, especially for women of color,” said Ilene H. Lang, President of Catalyst. “Working to further change the white, male, up-and-out culture to one that is more inclusive to women and people of color will not only expand opportunities for women of color in the accounting industry but also allow firms to attract and retain the best and brightest in the field.”

This study offers valuable insights into the unique challenges women of color in accounting experience. These challenges include:

  • A lack of similar role models
  • Negative stereotyping
  • Less likelihood of connecting with others at work
  • A lack of development opportunities, specifically with client service assignments
  • Diversity practices ineffective in creating a truly inclusive workplace for women of color

“Here’s a case where one size does not fit all,” said Katherine Giscombe, Vice President, Women of Color Research, and the lead author of the report. “If firm leaders do not take note of this intersectionality, then chances are great that their diversity and inclusion practices will be characterized by good intentions, ‘imperfect execution,’ and less than successful results.”

In order to attract and retain women of color, the Catalyst report provides the following suggestions:

  • Be mindful of “intersectionality”—it can magnify the single effects of race/ethnicity and gender for women of color.
  • Assess how diversity and inclusion practices specifically affect women of color and strengthen them with strong accountability systems.
  • Facilitate interactions among women of color and others in the workforce.
  • Aggressively open up client access and high-visibility opportunities to women of color.

This landmark Women of Color in Professional Services Series underscores Catalyst’s continuing commitment to studying the unique experiences of women of color in the workplace. Catalyst’s initial research in this area sparked a national dialogue and led businesses to turn their attention to making their work environments more inclusive of all women.

Ernst & Young is the lead sponsor of Women of Color in Accounting, with contributing sponsors Deloitte & Touche, KPMG, and PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. To learn more about this report, as well as the first report in the Women of Color in Professional Services Series, visit For media inquiries, please contact Serena Fong at 646-388-7757, [email protected], or Jeff Barth at 646-388-7725, [email protected].


The qualitative portion of this study consisted of 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, following a staggered schedule. The surveys were open an average of six weeks at each firm. The survey was sent to a total of 3,918 individuals, and 1,424 of them responded, for an overall response rate of 36.3 percent. Catalyst worked with organizations to ensure that the titles and units of employees were comparable across firms. Titles included partner/principal, director, senior manager, manager, senior associate, associate, and “other.” For the purposes of analyses, respondents were classified as being in either client-service roles or support roles. Client-service roles included those in Audit, Advisory, and Tax units. Support roles included those in human resources, core business support, or client-service support. Because of the importance of client-service roles to the bottom line of accounting firms, the influence of those in senior client-service roles and the historical under-representation of women and people of color in them, the data in this report comes from those in client-service roles only. Most data compares women of color, white women, men of color, and white men. In some cases, only two or three of the groups are compared, usually because differences between them are statistically significant while differences with unmentioned groups are not statistically significant.

Founded in 1962, Catalyst is the leading nonprofit membership organization working globally with businesses and the professions to build inclusive workplaces and expand opportunities for women and business. With offices in the United States, Canada, and Europe, and the support of more than 370 member organizations, Catalyst is the premier resource for research, information, and trusted advice about women at work. Catalyst annually honors exemplary organizational initiatives that promote women's advancement with the Catalyst Award.